By Justin Gillis Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2004; Page A19
SAN FRANCISCO -- In theory, a company called Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc. may have a solution for the problem of cholera, a resurgent disease that kills young children in poor countries. Avant is working on a vaccine that could offer years of protection.
But it's anybody's guess whether that vaccine will ever reach the people who need it most.
Avant, of Needham, Mass., is supplying doses for early trials in Bangladesh, but the small biotechnology company isn't sure it can find money for the large-scale tests that would prove the vaccine's usefulness in protecting poor youngsters.
"It's just a crying shame," said Una S. Ryan, who runs Avant.
But an answer to this kind of problem might be at hand.
In an ambitious new plan to be unveiled this week, the American biotechnology industry plans to join forces with two of the country's leading foundations in an effort to get new medical technologies to the world's poorest people.
The annual convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington trade group, is scheduled to begin today in San Francisco. In one of its most significant moves in years, the group, known as BIO, is establishing a new organization with help from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The not-for-profit Washington group, BIO Ventures for Global Health, to be announced Tuesday, will be dedicated to solving the business problems that small biotechnology companies confront in trying to create products for poor countries.
The group itself will be relatively small, 10 or 20 employees, but its aim is to put together a string of deals, costing from $3 million to $15 million apiece, through which foundations and other charitable donors would help finance development of new products like vaccines that could be deployed overseas.
The group will also cultivate expertise to help small companies pick their way through the complex business issues associated with using cutting-edge genetic technology to develop products that have to be sold overseas at very low prices.