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ISIS Report 01/08/07

Gates Philanthropy in Stem Cell Transplant for Damaged Heart

Dr. Lilian Joensen exposes the Gates Foundation’s betrayal of public trust in Argentina

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Innovative treatment for damaged heart targeted by Gates Foundation

In 2004, some patients in Argentina whose hearts were severely damaged as the result of contracting Chagas disease (caused by a protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi) were successfully treated with stem cells isolated from the patients’ own bone marrow and transplanted into the heart. This made headline news in Argentina and elsewhere [1] (Bone Marrow Cells Repair Heart Damaged by Chagas' Disease, SiS 25). See also Patient's Own Stem Cells Mend Heart [2], SiS 25).

Soon afterwards, representatives from the Gates Foundation approached Dr. Trainini, the cardiologist who pioneered the treatment. At the time, several research teams from the public health sector had come together to start a collaborative research programme, including those from the National Institute of Parasitology (where I work), and public hospitals in different parts of Argentina that normally deal with patients suffering from Chagas disease, as well as immunologists and social researchers, and technicians.

Chagas Disease is a disease of the poor in Latin America and the public sector has always been responsible for its diagnosis and treatment, as well as for education, prevention, and research.

The representatives of the Gates Foundation told Dr. Trainini that the Foundation was interested in supporting the project. The amount mentioned was US$2 million.

Public effort and resources poured into the project proposal

Trainini immediately started the round of meetings and talks with all the teams involved, which would be partners in project. The process of planning, discussing, designing and drafting the project proposal took several months. A lot of original thought and research findings as well as time and other resources went into the proposal from the public sector. For although Chagas’ disease is under-funded and the doctors, researchers and healthcare professionals working on it are underpaid, they are much respected because working for Chagas disease is seen to be serving the poor and the neglected of society. Argentina is a very big country, and people have to travel considerable distances to work together, thereby incurring substantial extra expenses, all paid for by the Argentine government.

Finally, a project proposal was presented to representatives of the Gates Foundation who had approached Dr. Trainini. The project was laid out in three parts with detailed protocols for each part. The first part consists of the protocol for the autologous (where the donor is also the recipient) bone marrow stem cell transplants, to be performed in the public hospitals. The second part consists of social research work in fighting the disease vector, alleviating poverty and the conditions that give rise to the disease, and follow up in local communities in the provinces. The third part describes the basic research to be carried out in the public research institutions.

Gates’ grant given to the private sector, with the project proposal

On receiving the proposal, the representatives of the Gates Foundation appeared to Dr. Trainini to be very satisfied, as they had been with the proceedings at all times, so he was quite unprepared for what came next.

The representatives took the project proposal delivered by Dr. Trainini and decided that they would support groups from the private sector to do the work. In other words, they took the original ideas and protocols carefully set out by Dr. Trainini and his collaborators in the public sector, and unscrupulously handed them over to the private sector, believing that the private sector could do the work more effectively.

The question of confidentiality then came up. None of the public sector groups involved were prepared to negotiate on that. It has been a premise from the first with Dr. Trainini and his collaborators that all the work would be published with no confidentiality conditions of any kind attached. This had to be independent research for the good of the Chagas patients, and those in the provinces that are infected
or at risk of becoming so.

Dr. Trainini was outraged, especially as during the discussion with his collaborators, people from the provinces involved in the project had expressed their suspicion to Dr. Trainini. These foundations, they said, were always talking about funding projects for the poor without any real intention of doing so. But, Dr. Trainini is a very honest and idealistic person, somewhat naïve, and not used to such sharp practices.

In my own defence, I must say that when I heard that the Gates Foundation was involved, I immediately told the people from the Secretariat of Science and Technology that they should be very careful, if they really expected these
people to have good intentions for the State and the people. I was assured that if something “strange” came up, the whole deal would be cancelled on our part. And fortunately, it was; but not before a lot of time, effort and other resources had been wasted.

Now the Provinces in Argentina said that they would be watching; if any team in the private sector ever starts to work with Chagas’ disease, they would do everything in their power to put a stop to it and expel the team. The Gates Foundation has become very, very unpopular in this sector of Argentina.

I telephoned the Coordinator of Health at the Argentine Secretariat of Science and Technology in April 2007 for an up-date, as I had been asked to post this story to the GM-free Africa list. I asked the coordinator if he would allow me to give his e-mail address to anyone who wanted more detailed first-hand information about this Gates Foundation episode, and he said that he would gladly tell the story to whoever is interested. Please send enquiries to me at: lilianj16@gmail.com,

The moral here is: “Don’t be naïve with these people. They belong to a certain ideological group that do not see social issues the same way we do. They have very specific interests also when it comes to ”charity”. The word “charity” in itself is ideologically marked and is insulting to us, simply because it implies a great deal of colonial patronage. Neo-liberalism is about the private sector taking over the public sector. And the Gates Foundation is obviously involved in this initiative, even to the extent of stealing ideas and knowledge from the public sector and giving them to the private sector for its capability to make money.”

References

  1. Joensen L. Bone marrow cells repair heart damaged by Chagas’ disease. Science in Society 25. 40, 2005.
  2. Ho MW. Patient’s own stem cells mend heart. Science in Society 25, 38-39, 2005.


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