December 02, 2019

Research Roundup: child-friendly HIV drugs, trial shows two Ebola treatments significantly reduce mortality, and study shows for babies born with HIV to start treatment right away

Ansley Kahn
Senior Program Assistant
PATH/Mike Wang

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Indian generic drug manufacturer Cipla and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative have developed a new, palatable pediatric formulation of HIV medicines priced at US$1 day, which experts say could save the lives of thousands of children each year. The drug, called Quadrimune, contains four HIV drugs—ritonavir, lopinavir, abacavir and lamivudine—and comes in strawberry-flavored granules the size of grains of sugar that can be mixed with milk or sprinkled on baby cereal. The granules are also coated with a polymer that doesn’t melt until it hits the stomach, eliminating the need for cold transport or storage of the drug, which can be inconsistently available in rural areas, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Quadrimune is still under review by the US Food and Drug Administration and, if approved, will likely lead to rapid certification by the World Health Organization. Each year, approximately 80,000 babies and toddlers die of AIDS in part because their medicines come in hard pills or bitter syrups that are very difficult for small children to swallow or keep down.

Final data from a landmark clinical trial of four Ebola therapies in the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo show two of the drugs dramatically reduce the risk of dying from the disease, especially in those who started treatment quickly after the onset of their illness. Findings of the PALM trial show that a monoclonal antibody cocktail called REGN-EB3, made by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, and a single monoclonal antibody developed by the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases called mAb114 led to a survival rate of about 65 percent in treated patients compared to 33 percent in the overall outbreak. The other two products tested in the trial, an antibody product called ZMapp and the antiviral drug remdesivir made by Gilead Sciences, did not perform as well, saving only half the patients who were treated with one of those two therapies. The PALM trial began November of last year but ended early in August of this year because an interim analysis showed REGN-EB3 and mAb114 were statistically better than ZMapp and remdesivir.

When babies are born with HIV, starting treatment within hours to days is better than waiting a few weeks or months, which is the norm in many countries. The findings from a small study in Botswana, funded by the US National Institutes of Health, show that very early treatment limits how HIV takes root in a newborn’s body, shrinking the “reservoir” of the virus that hides out waiting to rebound in case the children stop taking their medication. The study also demonstrated that the earliest-treated children had more normal functioning of some key parts of their immune system. These findings could influence care in regions hard hit by the epidemic and offer clues as scientists pursue a cure. Though it has become routine practice to give pregnant women a cocktail of anti-HIV drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus, it is estimated that 300 to 500 infants are infected every day in sub-Saharan Africa.