Radio Farda London correspondent Sharan Tabari interviewed Shaunak about his plans to help people in poor countries.
Radio Farda: Professor Shaunak, you and your colleagues have found a new way to make medicine and get it to the market at a fraction of the existing cost. Could you please tell our listeners how and what it is that you've done to produce this new drug.
Sunil Shaunak: We call our approach ethical pharmaceutical; there are now many clinical academics like myself who are very good at being creative and at discovering drugs and, when we do, we write the patent and that patent then goes to big pharmaceutical companies and I think what has happened is that doctors have become used to the idea that the only people who can make drugs and make them available to patients are the big pharmaceuticals. Now the problem for infectious diseases [is] that there are many, many people around the world who fail to get treatment purely and simply because the treatment is so expensive. Now if you take hepatitis C, there are 200 million people infected [with it] but only 30 million people can afford the treatment, which is based on adding sugar molecules to a naturally[-produced] protein called interferon. What we've done is [found] a way of putting sugar molecules onto the interferon in a way and with an approach using charitable money and government money, which means that we should be able to produce the medicine for poor patients at a price that they can afford.
Radio Farda: At present -- as you said -- you've done that for hepatitis C, how soon do you think this method could be applied for [the medicines for] other [diseases]?
Shaunak: Well, in fact what happened is that Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) has been so impressed with what we have done that they've contacted us and we're going to start work next week on a second disease -- a disease called Leishmaniasis (also known as black fever, a disease caused by parasites), which also occurs in [poorer parts] of the world: India, around the Mediterranean, South America, Sudan, and again there is a treatment that cures the disease but in places like Bihar, India, the cost of the drug is 80 percent of a person's annual income, which clearly makes it impractical. What we are going to do is make a version of the drug which will be stable in hot climates and which will cost about 10 percent of the price of the existing medicine.
Radio Farda: The drug companies that have the patents for each drug spend millions of [dollars] on research. Some believe that [your] methods may hamper [the drug companies'] research on medicine. Do you agree with that?
Shaunak: I don't agree with that for two reasons: first of all we don't spend billions of [dollars] on research; we do spend millions of [dollars] on research. We also invent the new medicine and we take out the patent as a university in order to ensure somebody else can't steal it from us. So that's the first thing. The second thing is that the diseases...we have been working [on], the patients are simply getting no treatment at all because [the] medicines...are so expensive. So what I would say [is that] as a global community and as somebody working within a university, I have a mission statement [to abide by that says] try to make drugs available for patients who currently have no treatment at all. So in many ways our approach is complementary and not competitive to the big pharmaceutical approaches.
Radio Farda: How soon do you think these cheap medicines can reach people on the ground?
Shaunak: We hope that the hepatitis C medicine will be available within two to three years and we think that the treatment for Leishmaniasis -- on which we are starting work this week -- will be available to patients within five years.
Radio Farda: And what about a drug for AIDS?
Shaunak: The situation -- interestingly with AIDS -- is slightly different because I worked many years with AIDS, which is where I came to realize that most of the people with AIDS were not receiving any treatment and I wanted to do something in that area. The situation with AIDS is slightly different because what happens with AIDS is that there's been lots of copying of drugs, there has been lots of what I call generic drugs, which have been made available at a much lower price. The approach we are taking in that is actually different, we are inventing new drugs that are based upon the existing understandings of pharmacology and of medicine and of biology. But we are trying from day one to say that those drugs must be cost affordable; now we haven't targeted AIDS as a disease at the present time because we think that people like [billionaire] Bill Gates and [former U.S. President] Bill Clinton have done a huge amount to drive [down] the price of the drugs that already exist...and the [question now really is] about public health; how do you make people who need those drugs actually get those drugs in very poor parts of [the world] -- especially Africa -- that is slightly different whereas we talk about a situation where the patients have got the disease [but] they simply can't afford the drugs.