While public funding through the National Institutes of Health has created a foundation for healthcare research, the private sector can benefit from getting more involved, said Bill Gates, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft.
While public funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has created a foundation for healthcare research, the private sector can benefit from getting more involved, said Bill Gates, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft.
During the keynote speech on the first day of the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference, held in San Francisco, California, Gates explained that the private sector has the skills, experience, and capacity to turn ideas and discoveries into viable products.
“And, frankly, the private sector has much to gain from pursuing breakthroughs in global health,” Gates added.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation largely focuses its work in poor countries, mostly in Asia and Africa, but the population growth coming from those areas highlight the importance of investing in developments for those areas. Nearly all of the expected population growth over the next years is projected to come from Africa. Not only does it make sense for the sake of stability to have this growing population be healthy, but in terms of business, these are important potential markets.
“These markets in Asia and Africa will be, by far, the largest patient pools in the world,” he said.
Interestingly, Gates also noted that there is a “surprising overlap” in the research agendas of biotech and pharma and the problems the Gates Foundation is trying to solve in global health. For example, current work on using the immune system to tackle cancer ties into the work of the Foundation. Because the Gates Foundation has been involved in vaccines and HIV, research into the immune system is important.
“So, even when the immediate disease indication that motivates the work is cancer, we want to partner at an early stage to see if those same tools can be used for HIV, malaria, or tuberculosis,” he said.
Gates said he hopes one day in the next decade that there will be a news headline that immuno-oncology has helped to bring a cure to HIV. Despite progress, it remains a challenging condition to treat and innovation in oncology could make a big difference.
Currently, good treatment and prophylaxis has helped to “hold the line,” but infection rates haven’t been cut much and the population growth in the affected age groups is high. However, without any breakthroughs, Gates said the HIV story could easily be one of returning to peak levels of infections and deaths.
“Our hope is that it’s this immunotherapy research for cancer that will give us the insights to control all of these infectious diseases, which would be a huge victory for humanity, and, hopefully, also a significant market for life sciences,” he said.
He also discussed research funding from governments around the globe. The United States has borne a higher percentage of basic research funding in the area, but over time, other countries will step up and be significant, Gates said. European countries and China are already putting money into research, but China is poised to grow even more.
The Gates Foundation has worked with China, helping with finance and getting western experts to help with drug regulation. Historically, the speed and quality of drug approval in China has been slow and limited, but new changes and the intent that the Foundation has seen “is exciting” as the country is pulled into the market and becomes a contributor to innovation.
So, does this mean that China could overtake the United States as the leader in research? Medical research investment shouldn’t be viewed as winners and loser—a sick person certainly doesn’t care where a cure or treatment comes from—but if the United States did decide to view it that way, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
“The red scare—if it causes us to raise the NIH budget, that’s good,” Gates said.