Global Health Luminaries Gather at Weill Cornell in Push for Action on Neglected Diseases in Developing World
Thought leaders in global health convened at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City recently to push for a new role for America’s universities in bringing lifesaving medicines to the world’s poor. At The Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan Kettering Tri-Institutional (Tri-I) Forum on Neglected Diseases, a stellar line-up of international health leaders strategized on ways for universities to increase research to find new cures for devastating, neglected diseases that are ravaging the developing world.
The World Health Organization estimates that 10 million people, most of them in lower and middle-income countries, die needlessly each year because they cannot gain access to existing vaccines and medicines. Millions more are killed or maimed by neglected tropical diseases—including sleeping sickness, lymphatic filariasis, and blinding trachoma. Because these diseases primarily affect the poor in the developing world, they attract little research and drug development funding.
“Universities are in a unique position to play a leading role in changing this tragic dynamic and making a real difference for the world’s poor,” said Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D. Walter G. Ross Professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Tropical Medicine at The George Washington University. A speaker at the forum, Dr. Hotez is the director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Disease Control, a global network of health organizations dedicated to helping control and eliminate the most prevalent NTDs. He noted that “universities have an opportunity and a responsibility to lead the search for solutions. University researchers are major contributors to the drug development pipeline, and universities are committed to advancing both knowledge and the public interest. Global public health is a vital public interest and a linchpin of global political stability as well.”
The forum, presented by the student-led Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), was a kick-off event for a rapidly growing national movement to place universities squarely on the front lines in addressing global health needs. Weill Cornell Medical College student Sandeep Kishore of the UAEM, who led and organized the event, is proud to have been able to answer the challenge from the Philadelphia Consensus Statement, adopted by the UAEM last fall, which called for universities to promote equal access to the fruits of their research, such as drugs and vaccines; promote research for neglected diseases; and measure research success by its impact on human welfare. The statement has drawn broad support from global health leaders. Of the hundreds of signatories, four are Nobel Laureates and four are former editors of the New England Journal of Medicine.
“As a student in the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program in New York, it is crucial for those of us at these universities to help draw attention to a topic that receives too little scientific attention. We are willing and able to lead a movement with students, academic leaders and luminaries in global health to spur movement on this issue,” Kishore said.
Another forum participant, Carl Nathan, M.D., R.A. Rees Pritchett Professor of Microbiology and chairman of Microbiology and Immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College, addressed the importance of pursuing novel partnerships to transform university research findings into drugs to aid the developing world. “I am delighted that Weill Cornell was able to partner with Médecins Sans Frontiéres/Doctors Without Borders earlier this month in addressing some of these critical issues,” Nathan commented. “Now students at Weill Cornell and the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD program are helping to bring the message to their fellow students. Realigning innovation, incentive and access is as important as solving problems in genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology and immunology if we are to make a major impact on global health.”
Weill Cornell Dean Antonio M. Gotto, M.D., D.Phil., another forum presenter, noted that the event was a response to the call that he and Cornell University President David Skorton issued to the university community this past summer to aggressively seek new strategies for Cornell to advance public health in Africa. “Weill Cornell’s initiatives, including the Abby and Howard P. Milstein Program in Chemical Biology for Infectious Diseases launched by Carl Nathan, and the recent investments in medical clinics in Tanzania, Haiti and Brazil demonstrate Cornell’s willingness to move this process forward,” Gotto noted.
Weill Cornell’s efforts to address neglected diseases in those three countries were described at the forum by Warren Johnson, M.D., B.H. Kean Professor of Tropical Medicine and chief of the Division of International Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Weill Cornell. He urged the medical students in attendance to become involved in efforts in the developing world.
“You can make a difference,” Johnson told the standing-room-only audience. “It takes time. It takes commitment.”
Wrapping up the program, Ellis Rubinstein, former editor of Science and current President of New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), presented compelling plans for the Academy’s new web-based project “Scientists Without Borders.”#