BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

July 26, 2015

Research Roundup: a dengue vaccine, a breakthrough HIV treatment, antimicrobial R&D, and more

Senior Program Assistant
GHTC

Later this year, French pharmaceutical company Sanofi plans to launch a vaccine for dengue fever, the first on the market for an infection for which nearly half of the world’s population is at risk. Sanofi has spent more than US$1.5 billion over 20 years on the research and development (R&D) of this dengue vaccine and expects it to be not only lifesaving, but also highly profitable. Dengue fever is endemic in a number of low- and middle-income countries in Asia and Latin America and is spreading into high-income countries in southern Europe as well as Japan and the United States. In preparation for the launch, Sanofi has invested more than $300 million in a manufacturing facility for the vaccine with the capacity to produce 100 million vaccines each year. Pharmaceutical companies Takeda, Merck & Co., Inc., and GlaxoSmithKline are also developing vaccines for dengue fever, and Takeda’s candidate could be on the market by 2020.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted a Breakthrough Therapy Designation to pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb for its HIV treatment BMS-663068, based on the results of phase 2 clinical trials. The designation expedites FDA review in order to accelerate the availability of drugs for serious or life-threatening conditions and in cases where preliminary evidence suggests that the new product would offer significant advantages over current treatments. BMS-663068 is the first antiretroviral drug that actually prevents the HIV virus from attaching to and entering human immune cells. The designation is limited to use of the drug for “treatment-experienced” HIV patients who are developing resistance to other antiretroviral treatments.

A new study suggests that the appearance of a pill can impact a patient’s perception of its efficacy. The study asked more than 100 participants each from the United States, China, and Colombia to rate images of pills on anticipated bitterness, ability to fight off headaches, and how hard it is to swallow, based solely on the shape and color of the pill. Across all three countries, participants perceived white pills as the most effective, and diamond-shaped pills—in contrast to round or oval pills—as the most difficult to swallow. A majority of US participants considered green pills to be the least effective and believed that red pills would lead to greater mental alertness. Past research has also suggested that a pill’s appearance can impact use; a study from 2014 indicates that when generic manufacturers change the shape or color of a pill, nearly one-third of patients will stop using the medication.

On Monday, July 20, the Center for Global Development published The White House and the World, a report with concrete policy recommendations for the next US president on everything from energy and climate to migration and trade. The report notes that the United States often serves as the “first responder” in outbreaks and is a leader in global health, but calls for clear leadership—including the appointment of a global health coordinator—and pathways for coordination across US agencies. The report highlights the needs for reform at major multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization and suggests that the United States should spearhead reform efforts and use those platforms to advance US priorities. The report identifies ways for the United States to provide technical assistance—through an office of Global Health Trade, Economics, and Knowledge Exchange—with partners in low- and middle-income countries, ultimately calling for a shift from the “aid-based status quo” and positioning the United States as a “forward-looking and strategic investor” in global health.

The Guardian took an in-depth look at the status of antimicrobial R&D, including antibiotic drug discovery, alternative treatments for drug-resistant bacteria, and improved diagnostics. In the 1950s through the 1970s, researchers were discovering around twelve new antibiotics each year just by examining soil samples and identifying compounds—generated by the one percent of micro-organisms that can grow in normal laboratory settings—that could fight off bacteria. A new device known as iChip allows scientists to cultivate microbes while still in soil, enabling them to work with the other 99 percent of micro-organisms. Researchers at Northeastern University have identified 25 potential compounds using iChip, including one that demonstrates promise against drug-resistant tuberculosis and that the team believes could be available for use in humans within five years. According to Dr. Kim Lewis, the project’s lead researcher, “the rule of thumb is you need 50 promising leads for one drug, [so] we will keep searching for more.” Dr. Matt Cooper, a professor of chemistry at the University of Queensland, is also searching for new antimicrobial compounds. Earlier this year, he established the Community for Open Antimicrobial Drug Discovery, which will collect thousands of chemicals and test them for antibiotic potential.

While Lewis and Cooper search for new compounds, others look for alternative or supplemental treatments for drug-resistant bacteria. The London-based biotech company Helperby Therapeutics has developed a “resistance breaker,” which Chief Scientific Officer Anthony Coates describes as “punching holes in the membrane of bacteria” to enhance the ability of existing antibiotics to combat the bacteria. David Livermore, a professor of medical microbiology at the University of East Anglia, is calling for rapid diagnostics to improve the diagnosis and treatment of drug-resistant infections. Livermore compares the current use of antibiotics to “carpet bombing in the second world war,” killing off all bacteria in patients, including protective bacteria in the human gut, and leaving a vacuum in which harmful bacteria can develop resistance. Because antibiotics are cheap and used by patients for a short amount of time, however, large pharmaceutical companies can be hesitant to invest in their R&D. As Cooper explains, the “low-hanging fruit[s]” have been discovered, and government investment is now needed to return to the “golden era” of antibiotic drug discovery.

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