A British doctor of Indian origin and his colleague are set to drastically lower the cost of medicines and pose a challenge to the monopoly of multinational drug companies.
Sunil Shaunak, professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College, London, and Steve Brocchini from the London School of Pharmacy are leading clinical trials in India for a drug for hepatitis C.
The two academics have devised a way to invent new medicines and get them to market at a fraction of the cost charged by big drug companies. Their model is likely to enable millions in poor countries to be cured of infectious diseases and reduce the drugs bill of Britain's National Health Service.
The Guardian reported Tuesday that Shaunak called their revolutionary new model "ethical pharmaceuticals". Improvements devised to the molecular structure of an existing, expensive drug turned it technically into a new medicine, which was no longer under a 20-year patent to a multinational drug company and could be made and sold cheaply.
"The process has the potential to undermine the monopoly of the big drug companies and bring cheaper drugs not only to poor countries but back to the UK," the newspaper reported.
It added that Shaunak and Brocchini had linked up with an unnamed Indian biotech company, which will manufacture the first drug - for hepatitis C - if clinical trials in India are successful. The report added that the trials are sponsored by the Indian government.
Hepatitis C reportedly affects 170 million people worldwide and at least 200,000 in Britain.
Multinational drug companies put the cost of the research and development of a new drug at $800 million. According to Shaunak and Brocchini, the cost of developing their drug will be only a few million pounds.
The report added that Imperial College would hold the patent on the hepatitis C drug to prevent anybody attempting to block its development. The college employs top patent lawyers who also work for some of the big pharmaceutical companies.
"Once the drugs have passed through clinical trials and have been licensed in India, the same data could be used to obtain a European licence so that they could be sold to the NHS as well," the report said.
Shaunak told the newspaper that it was time that the monopoly on drug invention and production by multinational corporations - which charge high prices because they need to make big profits for their shareholders - was broken.
"The pharmaceutical industry has convinced us that we have to spend billions of pounds to invent each drug. We have spent a few millions. Yes, it will be a threat to the monopoly that there is.
"I'm not only an inventor of medicines - I'm an end user. We have become so completely dependent on the big pharmaceutical industry to provide all the medicines we use. Why should we be completely dependent on them when we do all the creative stuff in the universities?
"Maybe the time has come to say why can't somebody else do it? What we have been struck by is that once we have started to do it, it is not so difficult."
The team's work on the hepatitis C drug is supported by a grant from the Wellcome Trust and help and advice from the Department for Trade and Industry and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The report added that the "ethical pharmaceutical" model was unlikely to find much favour with the multinational pharmaceutical companies, which already employed large teams of lawyers to defend the patents which they describe as the lifeblood of the industry.