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GSK R&D chairman tells of hope for an innovative medicines Joint Technology Initiative

The chairman of research and development (R&D) at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Dr Tachi Yamada, has spoken to CORDIS News of the company's commitment to the EU's Technology Platform and Joint Technology Initiative schemes, and his hope that clinical trials will not be affected by th...

The chairman of research and development (R&D) at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Dr Tachi Yamada, has spoken to CORDIS News of the company's commitment to the EU's Technology Platform and Joint Technology Initiative schemes, and his hope that clinical trials will not be affected by the recent drug trials tragedy in the UK. Dr Yamada spoke strongly in favour of clinical trials, underlining that some 1,400 drugs have been approved in the last 25 years, and that ten times that number have been tested in phase 1 studies. Referring to a recent incident in the UK in which six men suffered multiple organ failure when participating in a trial, Dr Yamada said: 'This is the first time that this has ever happened, and it is my guess that it wouldn't happen again in another 25 years. There is always a risk, but we take huge precautions.' Dr Yamada also rejects statements claiming that the incident showed the senselessness of testing drugs on animals before humans due to their different physiological make-up. The drugs being tested in the UK had, it is reported, first been tested on animals. Dr Yamada said that in the vast majority of cases, humans are very much like animals, and added: 'I think the worst and most convoluted conclusion that one could draw from this is an argument against animal testing. On the contrary, think of all the incidents we've avoided. I couldn't state this in more definitive terms - we would see this more often if we didn't test on animals first.' At a time when Europe is struggling to keep research investment within its borders, particularly where pharmaceuticals are concerned, Dr Yamada admits that GSK is conducting more of its research, and in particular clinical trials, outside of Western Europe and the US. These countries' loss is Asia and Eastern Europe's gain, he added. The new interest in these regions is not only fuelled by lower costs, but a quality, in terms of expertise, that is 'as good if not better'. He also highlighted a problem that many companies have with conducting clinical trials in developed countries: most of those who are ill are already on treatment. In countries with fewer healthcare facilities, GSK has more of an opportunity to test and to show the benefits of its drugs, says Dr Yamada. Nonetheless, around 50 per cent of GSK's research is still conducted in Europe. GSK's research priorities are decided on the basis of medical need, Dr Yamada told CORDIS News. He highlighted the recent launch of a drug to treat a rare form of childhood leukaemia, which will only be used by around 500 patients. Dr Yamada's commercial colleagues were fully behind the decision to invest in this drug, he says. The company also has a 'very important passion' for finding drugs to treat developing country diseases, says Dr Yamada. A laboratory in Spain has been set aside to conduct research into these diseases, in particular malaria and TB, and GSK recently launched a drug to treat rotavirus, which only effects people in third world countries. Asked to what extent multinationals such as GSK are interested in public funding, such as that offered by the EU, Dr Yamada said that 'Public funding is important as a parallel means of supporting the public sector so that it can take part in partnerships with the private sector.' GSK is involved in one such partnership at EU level - the Innovative Medicines Technology Platform. Dr Yamada is hoping that the platform will become a Joint Technology Initiative (JTI) under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Indeed, the platform has been identified by the Commission as one of six potential JTIs. 'We are very committed to the Technology Platform on Innovative Medicine,' said Dr Yamada. 'We want very much to take part in FP7.' He referred to the proposed JTIs as 'a step in the right direction', saying that they will increase efficiency. GSK also participates in a number of projects under FP6, but fewer than in FP5. The drop in participation can be explained by two factors, according to Andrew Freeman, responsible for R&D policy at GSK: an increase in bureaucracy and the discontinuation of the Marie Curie postdoctoral research grants, which GSK had found to be very beneficial for both parties. But the company remains involved in two Marie Curie fellowship schemes, as well as Integrated Projects on genome-based therapeutic drugs for depression, datagrids for process and product development, and integrated multiscale process units with locally structured elements. Responding to a question on what Europe could do to win back pharmaceutical research, Dr Yamada made reference to a UK scheme, Connecting for Health, which is seeing the investment of several billion pounds in the development of an information technology (IT) infrastructure that is intended to improve patient care by enabling health workers to increase their efficiency. Two-thirds of GSK's money is spent on clinical trials, which Dr Yamada describes as the company's most costly and difficult activity. 'A solid IT infrastructure would be a huge magnet for us. [...] If the infrastructure is there, we will come.'