Nonprofit ranks UI last in neglected disease research


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Diseases that receive the least amount of funding affect one in six people in the world, and one nonprofit organization is calling on research universities to work to change this.

Universities Allied for Essential Medicine published a report card on April 3, giving the 54 most highly funded research universities in the United States and Canada a grade based on how well they affect neglected-disease research. The University of Iowa came in last at No. 54 with a D minus. Only one school received a grade above a B-plus.

“Neglected diseases” are parasitic and bacterial diseases that are vastly ignored by research and primarily affect developing nations. Some of these diseases include tuberculosis and malaria.

“While we know about them, they still remain neglected by the market,” said Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, president of the nonprofit’s board of directors. “Because they’re poor, they don’t present an interesting market for the pharmaceutical companies.”

Kiddell-Monroe said often times when a university does conduct research on these diseases, findings are sold exclusively to a pharmaceutical company to develop the finding and create medicines.

“That company winds up having a monopoly on that medicine, [and]  that company can then charge very high prices on that medicine,” said Bryan Collinsworth, the executive director of the nonprofit. “Which is something that no one in lower-income countries can afford.”

The report card graded universities based on how much research they were doing on neglected diseases, lower- and middle-income countries’ ability to access the benefits of the research findings, and how much they are teaching students about the importance of neglected diseases.

In all of these areas, the UI received grades no higher than a D. Despite this, Debra Schwinn, the dean of the UI Carver College of Medicine, said there is important research being conducted.

“I can say that we have very important research in rare diseases in many disciplines,” she wrote in an email. “…[We] take our commitment to global health, in addition to the health of Iowans, seriously, particularly since the world is getting smaller and smaller with travel and communication connecting us all in important ways every day.”

UI spokesman Tom Moore said the UI conducts research in rare diseases such as malaria and Chagas, a rare disease spread by insects, in addition to other more common diseases.

“The mission of the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine is to serve the health and well-being of Iowans,” he wrote in an email. “Therefore, it’s appropriate that the UI Carver College of Medicine would focus on disorders that more commonly affect Iowans, such as heart disease and cancer, for example.”

One UI professor of infectious disease said he thinks it is important for the UI to be engaged in research that has a global health impact.

“I’m not sure that geography dictates your target,” William Nauseef said. “I think that’s a little bit artificial to think that way. Humans are humans.”

He said if a researcher finds a vaccine for an infection or disease it would likely be beneficial for people in Iowa as well as around the world.

Kiddell-Monroe said publicly funded research universities are uniquely positioned to champion research in these diseases and that as the world gets increasingly globalized, the health of those around the world will come to affect Iowans.

“The world that we live in now doesn’t just depend on what happens in a state or in a country,” she said. “We’re living in a global world. Iowa today is not in isolation.”

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