August 27, 2017

Research Roundup: A new anti-malarial, the promise of probiotics, and genetically-engineered TB

Marissa Chmiola
Communications Officer

In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

Novartis has launched patient testing of a new anti-malaria compound with the hopes of staving off the development of further drug-resistance. The experimental compound—KAF156—will be tested in combination with another medicine in children and adults across nine countries in Africa and Asia over the next few months. In recent years, there have been increasing reports of malaria parasites that have become resistant to the standard treatment regimens against malaria, spurring the need for new treatment options from different classes of antimalarial compounds. Novartis expects to complete phase 2b studies of the compound by late 2019. It remains too early to tell whether the product will eventually reach market.

A strain of gut bacteria taken from the diaper of a baby could hold promise in saving the lives of thousands of newborns in poor regions. Scientists conducting a large clinical trial in India found that babies who were fed a probiotic strain of Lactobacillus bacteria for a week were 40 percent less likely to develop a deadly infection called sepsis, which kills 600,000 newborns per year in India and other nearby nations. Babies who took the probiotic also had fewer cases of pneumonia, diarrhea, and ear infections. Researchers believe this probiotic—which costs only US$1—could be a “game changer” in advancing the health of infants in poor nations.

Scientists at Harvard University are genetically engineering relatives of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) in the hopes if speeding development and clinical trials to develop a better TB vaccine. The only currently available TB vaccine is partially effective in children and performs poorly in adults, so scientists are working to develop other vaccine candidates. However, performing clinical trials on vaccines is challenging because a typical clinical trial involves observing large numbers of people over long periods of time to monitor results in a small subset of people that naturally come into contact with the microbe. Alternatively, “challenge studies” infect people on purpose, so are faster and less expensive, but these studies are only possible if the disease can be detected and treated easily. TB can take time to detect and many months to treat, so is not appropriate for this type of study. The team at Harvard is working to genetically modify TB so it can be safely given to people as part of challenge trials, and thus help speed vaccine development.