Gates Foundation digs down deep for TB

The fight against the global tuberculosis (TB) epidemic has received a huge boost in the form of a $280 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The funds will pay for research into developing more effective vaccines, diagnostic tests and more effective drugs.

The Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation will receive $200 million over a five year period to research as many as six vaccine candidates which are currently in the early stages of clinical trials.

Dr. Jerald Sadoff, a former vaccine researcher at Merck and the chief executive at Aeras, says the money will be used to launch a series of trials on human volunteers and hopefully a new vaccine will be available by 2015.

The vaccine candidates will be tested on up to 8,500 patients in 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States.

Dr. Sadoff says even a partially effective new TB vaccine could prevent more than 30 million deaths worldwide by 2030.

The Gates Foundation funds will also support the development of as many as 10 new TB diagnostic tests with the hope of developing one or more replacement tests within five years; it seems current tests miss about half of all TB cases.

The money will also support early-stage drug discovery efforts.

The Gates Foundation has promised to find at least $900 million for research on tuberculosis by 2015 and the $280 million is part of that pledge.

Although TB is in the main a disease of the lungs, it can attack any part of the body; the bacteria are spread by coughing and sneezing and according to the World Health Organization (WHO) about 1.6 million people die each year from it.

TB is a curable disease but the improper use of antibiotics and the failure of some patients to finish the course of drugs has led to the rise of multi-drug resistant (MDR) TB and extensively drug resistant (XDR) TB which can be lethal and the disease now presents a global threat.

This threat was highlighted recently by the case of TB patient lawyer Andrew Speaker, who triggered international alarms last May when he traveled internationally despite being warned of his condition.

Dr. Mario Raviglione, head of the WHO's Stop TB program has welcomed the initiative and says if TB is not diagnosed more rapidly, humanity will suffer an epidemic.

According to the WHO a third of the world's population is infected with the germs that cause tuberculosis, and one in 10 of those people will go on to develop active disease over the course of their lifetime.

Even with access to drugs, tuberculosis is difficult to treat as it requires months of antibiotic therapy.

New research presented at a major infectious diseases conference in Chicago this week has highlighted the potential of an existing antibiotic, moxifloxacin, as being useful in the treatment of TB.

The findings suggest that the drug when used in combination with other TB medications, could cut down treatment time and therefore improve the rate of people who complete a full course of therapy which would have an impact on the rise of resistance.

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