Research Institutes

Gates Foundation sets up biotech-like institute in hands-on effort to spur drug development for neglected diseases

BOSTON — After years of carefully doling out money to spur drug development, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is officially getting its hands dirty with the business, clinical and regulatory work necessary to bring drugs to market.

Penny Heaton

The new effort takes the shape of what has been named the Bill and Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute, which will function in much the same way as its biotech neighbors in Cambridge, MA except in one regard: It will not seek to make money.

Having settled into a small office and quietly built up a team since January, the Gates MRI shared more details about its scale and focus for the first time today. The entity will operate on an annual budget of around $100 million and focus on malaria, tuberculosis and enteric diseases — ailments that are often fatal in low-income countries but have not seen much progress in R&D. Their goal? To break down silos and “accelerate finding solutions” for these diseases, STAT notes.

Sue Desmond-Hellmann

Gates Foundation CEO (and famed former Genentech exec) Susan Desmond-Hellmann and Trevor Mundel, its head of global health, championed the initiative and see it as central to the foundation in the future. Mundel — who used to run development for Novartis, convinced an old colleague and vaccine developer, Penny Heaton — to move from the foundation’s vaccine team to the helm of this new entity.

Heaton, in turn, filled her team with seasoned biopharma execs: CMO David Kaufman led translational oncology at Merck Research Labs; chief of staff Mary Thistle Dimension Therapeutics; Dina Berdieva, head of -project management & clinical operations, spent time at Novartis vaccines before joining Boston Pharma; and Jared Silverman, head of translational discovery, was an 18-year Cubist Pharma veteran.

Trevor Mundel

That’s a pattern you can expect to see at the Gates MRI. Mundel told Forbes “the new effort will be staffed almost entirely with industry vets, not academics.”

Together, they will first turn their attention to a tuberculosis program, investigating whether giving a booster shot of the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine to adolescents who’ve received it as an infant could reduce infection rates.

That’s the kind of study that the Gates MRI is in the best position to do, Heaton told Forbes: “These studies need to be done, but this is a very inexpensive vaccine, and there’s not a big market—there would be no incentive for a private partner to take on a study of this nature.”

Way down the road, the group might also file for regulatory approvals, communicate with the FDA, and even hold ownership of a drug if necessary.

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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