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UBC shares technology with the poor

BY PEGGY BERKOWITZ | AUG 05 2008

Late last year, the University of British Columbia adopted a statement of principles designed to encourage UBC research innovations to be made available at low cost to poor countries. In May, the statement had its first tangible success, with UBC licensing a a company to commercially develop a drug for the industrialized world, in exchange for offering it cheaply in developing countries.

UBC is the first university in Canada to adopt strategic “global access” principles to help guide licensing activities for technologies developed at UBC, though it is not the only one to actively promote its technologies for use in developing countries.

In a practical sense, the new principles mean that when UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office considers whether an emerging technology is ready for commercialization, it now has a new aspect to consider, along with things like patentability and the state of the science. “We’ve now added to that the opportunity for consideration for global access,” said Angus Livingstone, managing director of the office.

Many technologies developed at the university – some software engineering programs, for example – have no third-world impact, said Mr. Livingstone. But health-related technologies often have potential for both industrialized and developing countries.

“The question,” he said, “is how can we ensure development in the First World and access in the Third?”

In the recent case, the drug formulation for an oral form of Amphotericin B, developed at UBC, has two potential applications. One worldwide use is to orally treat fungal infections. Another application is to treat Leishmaniasis, a debilitating parasite-borne disease prevalent in parts of the developing world.

The licensing agreement gives iCo Therapeutics Inc. of Vancouver the right to develop Oral AMP B for sale in the industrialized world to treat fungal infections. In return, iCo agreed to make a form of the drug to treat Leishmaniasis and sell it in the developing world at a subsidized price. Oral AMP B was developed at UBC by Drs. Kishor Wasan and Ellen Wasan.

Both the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation have “strongly endorsed” the UBC principles, said Mr. Livingstone. “They’re actually pointing others to UBC and saying you should consider this.” (See UBC’s global access statement.)

It was a group of committed UBC students – members of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines – who first prodded the university to come up with a global access strategy. UAEM, a student-led group with more than 25 chapters in North America, is urging universities to research neglected diseases, to measure research success based on the impact on human welfare and to require global access in their licensing agreements with drug and biotechnology companies.

The UBC chapter met last year with President Stephen Toope and vice-president research John Hepburn, pointing out that the university’s strategic plan, called Trek 2010, calls for UBC to aspire to be globally recognized and for students and faculty to be global citizens.

“The UAEM students said that if you’re going to live what you’re talking about, this would be a good way of showing you’re going to walk the talk,” recalled Mr. Livingstone.

He said the students wanted the university to adopt the UAEM “Philadelphia Protocol,” which prescribes how universities should act in sharing research results with the developing world. But the university-industry liaison office found the protocol too prescriptive, said Mr. Livingstone. “We said the best we can do so early in the journey is come up with some principles and apply them over time so we ultimately develop some templates to be used in different situations.”

At a UBC board meeting in November when the global access principles were adopted, President Toope said this was a personal highlight of his first year in office, for two reasons: he has a personal interest in the global social condition, and this was a chance to interact in a powerful way with a student group.

“He saw this as a wonderful illustration of what a university should be doing: working with students, listening to part of its academic community and adjusting its policies to stay in line with that,” said Mr. Livingstone.

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