Expert insight

@WorldIPDay: Women working their magic on innovation in health

26 April 2018

Every April 26, we celebrate World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) World Intellectual Property Day to recognize the role that intellectual property (IP) rights play in encouraging innovation and creativity. This year’s campaign celebrates the brilliance, ingenuity, curiosity and courage of the women who are driving change in our world and shaping our common future.

I have dedicated my career in academia, government and industry to promoting health and creating the optimal policy environment for innovation to flourish so this is a topic near and dear to my heart.  I have met some amazing women who work at the cutting edge of science to find tomorrow’s breakthrough cancer treatments, women who overcome prejudice and surmount barriers to delivering medicines to those who need them most, women who take on the political system so that innovations for rare or neglected diseases reach patients who need them. Then there are the women who invent new lab tests so that clinical trials can be accelerated, with innovations tested and, if deemed safe and effective, swiftly brought to market to improve or save lives.

You can, therefore, imagine my disappointment when I checked Wikipedia’s “list of inventions and discoveries by women” and found that only four women were listed under “medicine”. This very short list recognised women for inventing the Apgar score, disposable diapers, child carriers (sic), and whooping cough vaccine.

We need to update this Wikipedia list and raise awareness of women’s pioneering contributions to medicine and healthcare.  Here are a few nominations of women who came up with game-changing inventions and life-enhancing innovations that advance medicine and improve global health:

Dr Anne Szarewski in the 1990s showed that human papillomavirus (HPV) was linked to cervical cancer. This was a breakthrough that, over the following ten years, enabled a vaccine to be developed to prevent HPV and, with it, the majority of cervical cancers. These vaccines are now more and more available around the world, preventing suffering and death, and even offering up the possibility that cervical cancer may be eliminated.

Biopharmaceutical companies have been working in innovative partnerships to ensure as many girls in low- and middle-income countries can also be protected: For example, governments, NGOs and pharma are cooperating in a comprehensive approach to cervical cancer prevention in sub-Saharan Africa that includes both HPV vaccination and HPV DNA testing. Since cervical cancer, the most common women’s cancer in the region, is estimated to affect approximately 500 000 women each year, of whom 85% live in developing countries, and caused 236,000 deaths in 2013 alone, Dr Szarewski’s vaccine breakthrough –in a long line from women going back 200 years – have given the world the gift of vaccines that are the simplest, most cost-effective way to save lives.

Dr Nelly Mugo was beginning her clinical career in obstetrics and gynaecology in Kenya as the AIDS epidemic decimated sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly two decades later, the principal research scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute is a key player in an AIDS success story. She helped conduct the pioneering Partners PrEP Study and the Partners Demonstration Projects that showed pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—the administration of ARVs to prevent HIV transmission—was effective in ‘serodiscordant’ couples, e.g. where only one partner is infected by HIV. The Partners Demonstration Project found that daily PrEP use among these couples was even more effective than originally imagined. Stable, heterosexual African HIV-1 serodiscordant couples face a high risk of HIV-1 transmission, both from each other and from outside partners, and are a priority population for preventive interventions.  Dr Mugo is following in the footsteps of many inspirational scientists such as Marty St. Clair who, together with her colleagues at Burroughs Wellcome (a predecessor of GSK), went on to develop AZT, the first medicine for the treatment of HIV.

HIV AIDS treatments over the past 20 years have removed an immutable death sentence and turned the affliction into a manageable chronic disease.  For example, today’s South Africa has the largest treatment programme in the world that has led to a life expectancy rebound from 57.1 years to 62.9 years in just five years. A very special woman who has been instrumental in achieving this sea change is my colleague Konji Sebati.  A former medical practitioner, regional director for health, diplomat, Elizabeth Glaser Paediatric Foundation’s “The Most Outstanding Woman in the fight against HIV/AIDS”, Konji is now CEO of IPASA, the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association of South Africa, and she merits more than a mention on World Intellectual Property Day for her pioneering work.

Belén Garijo, CEO of the German pharmaceutical company Merck, flies the flag for all women within research-based biopharmaceutical companies playing a leading role in driving innovation. She trained as a medical doctor, specialized in clinical pharmacology and she spent eight years working in R&D labs on cancer drug development — clearly good training for taking over the reins to revitalize the company’s research and development pipelines.  Her winning strategy helped launch new medicines to fight cancer and multiple sclerosis that address unmet medical needs of patients.

Angela Zhang represents the hope and future of women scientists.  She rose to prominence in 2012, when she was just 17, and a high school student in Cupertino, where she discovered a breakthrough treatment that is truly world-changing for cancer sufferers. By embedding cancer medication in a polymer that can “stick” to cancer cells, allowing these to be tracked by infrared light, she found a way of tracking how medication works in a cancer patient’s body — and the optimal time for its release. The polymer dissolves so as to let the medication enter the cell, meaning that doctors can see exactly how and where the cancer is being attacked.  Remarking on her astonishing discovery Zhang says: “A lot of chemotherapies right now, they’re systematic so they attack all of the cells in your body. So, the ability to concentrate and deliver chemotherapy to cancer cells alone would [help] increase the efficacy of some cancer drugs and decrease some of the side effects.”

Angela is a high-profile ambassador not only for young women to become innovators but also represents a large group of women scientists who are translating “basic” science to actual therapies.  For example, the work of Annie Martin as Global Head of Precision Medicine in Oncology at Novartis the design, implementation and execution of the precision medicine strategies that support the programs in clinical development in close collaboration with the Novartis Institute for BioMedical Research (NIBR) as well as with regulatory and commercial team. Her team collaborates with external stakeholders, including physicians, technology developers, regulators and payers, with one goal in mind: to bring precision medicines to patients.

The research-based biopharmaceutical industry boasts many leading women scientists around the world who work to bring innovative & better medicines to patients today. The industry has 7000 medicines in development and over 850 are treatments specifically for women.  Women within it are a core element of an innovation system based on competitive research, granting of intellectual property rights, and the reward for the successful innovator that translates these vital medical discoveries into treatments for patients.  This model has brought forward over recent decades a variety of therapeutic breakthroughs in areas such as cancer, hepatitis C or rheumatoid arthritis, to name but a few.

Which women innovators would you have on your list?