An international public-private partnership (PPP) was launched in July last year to develop a new pediatric formulation to combat schistosomiasis – commonly known as bilharzia – in preschool children. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grants $1.15 million to support some research & development activities before Phase I clinical trials. The current partners in this consortium, coordinated by TI Pharma, are Merck KGaA, Astellas Pharma Inc. and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (“Swiss TPH”).

Schistosomiasis is a severe chronic inflammatory disease caused by parasitic worms and is endemic in 78 developing countries, infecting more than 243 million people globally every year. Schistosomiasis is the second most prevalent tropical disease in the world after malaria, and occurs primarily in developing countries with limited access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation. If not treated properly, the disease can lead to anemia, stunting and reduced learning ability, and can be fatal.

The consortium’s goal is to develop a suitable pediatric drug for preschool children, a high-risk group for schistosome infections counting for 10-20 million of the global prevalence. The standard recommended praziquantel treatment is available in oral tablets for adults and children from the age of six. Younger children cannot always swallow these tablets because of their size and bitter taste. An appropriate treatment with praziquantel for preschool children is non-existent and highly needed.

The amount from the Gates Foundation was granted to Merck, one of the consortium partners, and will be used to finance some important R&D activities needed to bring the product up to the first clinical studies in man. It will also allow the involvement of disease experts, including from countries affected. Altogether, this will ensure that the product to be developed fits the needs of the pediatric population best.

Annalisa Jenkins, Chair of the Consortium Board and Head of Global Drug Development and Medical at Merck Serono, the biopharmaceutical division of Merck: “There is an urgent need for the treatment of schistosomiasis in very young children, for whom there is currently no approved therapy. The support of the Gates Foundation is a key step in moving forward with new options for this highly vulnerable population with the ultimate goal of elimination.”