Researchers are ready to start human tests of new experimental vaccines for tuberculosis (TB), one of humanity’s oldest diseases, thanks to the combined effort of scientists from over 35 research organisations.
Every hour, seven people in Europe die from TB, and about a third of the world’s population is infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria behind TB, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
While most infected people manage to keep the disease in check, rising drug resistance and poverty means that about 1.3 million still die from TB every year, making it second only to AIDS as the most deadly single infectious agent worldwide.
The disease, characterised by chronic coughing and spitting up blood, can be mostly prevented in children through the BCG, or bacille Calmette-Guérin, vaccination. However, at the moment no vaccine exists for adults or those already infected with the disease.
‘New vaccines are the only sustainable solution that can make a significant impact on the global tuberculosis epidemic,’ Dr Jelle Thole, Executive Director of the Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (TBVI), said.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis is becoming increasingly resistant to the drugs used to treat it, making the need for a vaccine ever more urgent.
Drug-resistant TB is a major public health problem that threatens progress made in TB care and control worldwide, the WHO said in a 2011 report. At the moment, those who contract drug-resistant strains need toxic and expensive treatments that are not globally accessible.
‘The price of some quality-assured second-line drugs has not fallen, and shortages of drugs still occur,’ the WHO said in the report.
‘New vaccines are the only sustainable solution that can make a significant impact on the global tuberculosis epidemic.’
Dr Jelle Thole, Executive Director, TBVI
The NEWTBVAC project, funded by the EU, brought together scientists from over 35 research organisations, in countries such as Argentina, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Germany to develop potential vaccines.
The project, which is ending on February 28, 2014, has worked on ways to block the transmission of tuberculosis, as well as prevent latent infection from turning into full-blown TB.
It focusses on discovering new potential vaccines and early testing. It then hands over to its partners – typically vaccine companies who have invested in the research – to conduct trials of the potential vaccines in people.
The project has discovered around 40 potential TB vaccines, and out of these, four of them have been given legal clearance to start tests in humans.
Aside from developing potential vaccines, one of the major aims of the NEWTBVAC programme is to make any upcoming vaccines globally accessible and affordable.
‘With this broad portfolio it must surely be possible to launch a few vaccines onto the market,’ Dr Thole said. ‘We are continuing our search for vaccines that will prevent (drug-resistant) TB in all age groups and that will be cost-effective, acceptable and accessible to all.’
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