Novel treatment promises to be an effective cure for tuberculosis

Researchers in Belgium have uncovered a novel treatment that promises to be an effective cure for tuberculosis (TB). The respiratory disease has been experiencing a major global comeback due to the emergence of resistant strains of the bacteria that causes it and the spread of AIDS.

Tuberculosis is joining that list of diseases, including polio, which science appeared to have conquered, only for it to rear its ugly head again years later. Some 40 years ago, effective treatments were wiping the disease off the face of the Earth but today TB is making an astonishing comeback.

One reason for this can be summed up in the adage that, as science builds better mousetraps, nature builds better mice. Antibiotic-resistant strains of TB have made current treatments less effective. In addition, the HIV-AIDS epidemic sweeping across many parts of the world is making matters worse since the killer disease often triggers the latent TB which is carried by an estimate one in three of the world’s population.

This has driven up the TB death toll to 2 million people worldwide every year, prompting the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare it a global health crisis. In response to this growing challenge, a team of scientists in Belgium has developed a novel cure for TB which has proved successful on mice and is doing well in preliminary human trials.

The team at Johnson & Johnson’s research centre in Belgium came across a new compound – known simply as R207910 – that attacks mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB, in a new way. “The drug acts through a novel mechanism of action, and is therefore active against multi-drug resistant (MDR) strains of TB tested so far,” Dr Koen Andries, who heads the team, was quoted as saying.

R207910 belongs to a new family of anti-TB agents called diarylquinolines (DARQ) and appears to have better antibiotic properties than the drugs currently in use. One promising feature of the new compound is that it could speed up treatment time.

TB is currently treated with a cocktail of drugs which must be taken for six to nine months – prematurely ending treatment is one reason why resistant strains emerge. Results in mice suggest that R207910 can cure it in about half the time.

“For a long time, there has been a move to find a drug that is safe and effective and completely cures the patient in a shorter time,” Andries notes. “A new drug that could shorten or simplify effective treatment would dramatically improve TB control programmes.” The new compound is currently undergoing human clinical trials.

A recent WHO study showed that multi-drug resistant strains of TB are becoming a major threat to Europe, particularly on its eastern flank in Russia and some Baltic states. This makes TB as much a European problem as it is a world one.

The EU’s Sixth Research Framework Programme is investing large sums in researching the disease and other communicable diseases, such as HIV-AIDS and malaria. In addition, the Union has allocated over €1 billion to fighting these three killer conditions which claim 6 million lives per year.

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