This article is part of the Forum Network series on International Co-operation
Paul Stoffels is M.D. and Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson.
As a young physician working in Africa in the 1980s, I saw first-hand the devastating impact HIV/AIDS had on individuals, families and entire communities. At the time, I could not have imagined how far we would come in 30 years. We still have a long way to go to a cure, but today the world has 40 new drugs, simplified treatment regimens, a near-normal life expectancy and 17 million people on therapy in Africa through innovative access models. Overall, the impact of these new therapies can be measured in hundreds of millions of years of life saved and well-lived.
HIV/AIDS is a story of what brought us together as a global community: the quest to overcome a massive public health crisis, the belief in the power of science and technology to understand and treat HIV and the conviction that we could solve it through extreme international collaboration among scientists, physicians, industry, patients, advocates and regulators. We worked tirelessly because patients were waiting.
Over the past century, this passion to solve public health challenges has brought us together many times, resulting in an increased life expectancy of approximately 40 years, or nearly 50%. We now know how to prevent multiple infections through vaccination, treat many others with antibiotics and transform diseases with medicines, surgery or other interventions. With Hepatitis C, the introduction of new therapies means we are close to a 100% cure rate, and we are seeing 25% decline in cancer death rates since the 1990s. Our investments in research and development are having major impact on life and quality of life.
The public health challenges we face in today’s interconnected world are new and different. While people are living longer, they are living with more complex illnesses. New viruses are emerging and spreading faster than ever, causing global fears of pandemics. Non-communicable diseases and chronic conditions, such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, are on their way to becoming major public health issues.
As a scientist and physician, I believe that once again, the solutions lie in the common vision that brings us together: a vision of a healthier future for all. This vision should drive us to relentlessly pursue the best science and technology from the farthest corners of the world. It should drive us to collaborate with open hearts and open minds because in the end, no one institution can solve it alone.
While the challenges we face today are massive, I have never been more optimistic about our ability to tackle them, because we have an explosion of science and technology at our fingertips. We have sequenced the human genome, delivered personalised medicines, we are learning how to edit DNA and we can print replacement body parts using 3-D printing. We are learning more about the microbiome and the power of harnessing the immune system to tackle cancer. Robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and digitalisation are providing game changing opportunities. The explosion of data gives us opportunities for unprecedented insights, and the potential to transform healthcare is enormous.
But for us to reap the benefits and solve health challenges, it will require immense collaboration on an international scale. Given what I have seen in HIV, I am confident that we are capable of such an effort.
The global response to the Ebola outbreak is a recent example. It brought us together through broad collaboration across multiple stakeholders: governments, academics and global health partners working alongside on vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. At Johnson & Johnson, we launched multiple clinical trials on parallel tracks with extreme acceleration and collaboration and, from a funding perspective, we had significant co-investments between industry and government. And we continue to work together with the European commission (IMI) and the United States government (BARDA) to ensure we finish the development of our Ebola vaccines so that next time it strikes, we will be better prepared. As a founding partner in the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), we contribute our scientific and development capabilities to ensure that a significant number of pandemic infections can be prevented with innovative vaccines.
We have many examples of internationally collaborative efforts under way. The Dementia Discovery Fund brings together the private sector, non-profits and industry to invest in novel science focused on dementia. The EU – IMI, which works to improve health by speeding up the development of innovative medicines for public health, is another example of collaborative efforts, as are the many collaborations with the National Institutes of Health through the Foundation for the NIH. On the clinical side, Transcelerate BioPharma represents a pre-competitive collaboration across the global biopharmaceutical research and development community to accelerate the development of medicines through more efficient clinical trials.
As for HIV/AIDS, our resolve to make HIV history continues to bring us together today.
I believe that to achieve transformational innovation, we must aim high. I also believe what brings us together is the commitment to improve health for the world and the hope that through science and innovation, every person in the world will be able to live a healthy life. As the world continues to evolve, so too will new health care challenges. But if we combine innovation with international collaboration and inclusivity, together we can create exponential impact.