By Tom Still
Madison Correspondent

MADISON – A Wisconsin-born leader in the World Health Organization has laid down an urgent challenge for bioscience researchers: Arrest AIDS and develop an antidote to nicotine addiction, and the planet will be a safer and more productive place.

Tom Loftus, the former U.S. ambassador to Norway and the former Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, added a sobering global perspective to last week’s Wisconsin Life Sciences & Venture Conference in Madison. The special adviser to WHO’s Director-General asked researchers, company executives and venture capitalists to remember the needs of the developing world as they scramble to market the next breakthrough drug.

More than 400 people gathered in Madison for the once-a-year chance to learn about the latest in biotechnology research. Thirty-two companies from eight states were selected from a larger pool of applicants, and their ideas ranged from extracting hydrogen fuel from sugar to “mining” drugs from microbes found only in hot springs or ice floes.

If bioscientists could also develop an overnight test for AIDS or a drug that would end the nicotine cravings of the world’s smokers, Loftus said, they would do more than make a pile of money. They would change the world.

A rapid test for AIDS is needed in Africa and beyond, Loftus explained, to check the spread of the HIV virus. More people in AIDS-ravaged countries are taking tests that pinpoint the virus, but fewer than half come back to check the results. It’s usually weeks before the results are ready – and many poor people move on in search of food or shelter.

Loftus said AIDS is a “diabolic” killer that wipes out the most productive people in developing nations — in some villages leaving only the very old and the very young. Stopping the disease is essential to creating economic prosperity and stability in parts of the world that have already suffered enough.

“AIDS is the grim reaper of the developing world,” said Loftus, whose agency works in more than 190 countries through the United Nations. In countries with high incidences of AIDS, there are corresponding increases in tuberculosis and deadly influenzas because they incubate in weakened immune systems. “We are seeing a backsliding of public health gains in the last several years,” Loftus said.

Tobacco is another pervasive killer, Loftus explained, that is reducing productivity and life spans as cancer, heart disease, strokes and other cardiopulmonary disease rise in the developing world. Smoking rates may be waning in the United States and Europe, but they’re soaring elsewhere.

An effective nicotine replacement therapy would be “the drug that would change much of the world,” Loftus said. Treating the diseases that stem from smoking is very expensive, often stretching thin the resources of nations that should be spending health dollars on prevention. Educating the world’s smokers about the dangers of tobacco use is one long-term strategy, Loftus said, but an effective drug to break their addiction would accomplish even more.

It’s tempting for researchers to focus on the North American and European markets because that’s where the money can be found for specialized drugs. But there’s also profit in fighting the scourges of developing nations, as well as the prospect for more stability at a time when the world sorely needs it. Bioscience can make life better for millions of people everywhere – it must seize the chance to do so.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, the co-producer of the Wisconsin Life Sciences & Venture Conference. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.