February 18, 2018

Research Roundup: Discovering new antibiotics in soil and harnessing gene therapy to fight AIDS

Marissa Chmiola
Communications Officer
PATH/Wendy Stone

Interested in more global health innovation news? Every week GHTC scours media reports worldwide to deliver essential global health R&D news and content to your inbox. Sign-up now to receive our weekly R&D News Roundup email.

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

Using a new research platform that extracts DNA directly from soil, researchers at Rockefeller University have discovered a new class of antibiotics. Scientists have long seen soil as a potential untapped source for new antibiotics; however, tapping this resource has proved challenging because only about 1 percent of bacterial species in soil can be cultured in labs. This new discovery platform is culture-independent. It allows scientists to extract, clone, and sequence DNA from the soil without growing bacteria in the lab. Researchers are hopeful this new platform can be scaled to systematically search for new antibiotics in the environment.

With recent advances in gene therapy techniques, researchers are looking at the potential of these techniques to improve treatment for those living with AIDS and cure the disease. Scientists have used gene-editing tools to cut DNA at the exact spot to disable the HIV entryway gene both in immune T cells and blood stem cells. While the results of these initial experiments were less promising than researchers had hoped, there was a silver lining: Patients saw a decrease in the number of cells where the HIV virus lurked in a dormant state. Thus, researchers are looking at the potential to pair altered cells with existing antiretroviral medicines to improve the body’s ability to eliminate the virus. Scientists are also looking at the potential to use gene editing to introduce new genes that would help T cells recognize and kill HIV, similar to therapy introduced last year to treat cancer.

Aeras announced results from an innovative clinical trial that provides new encouraging evidence that tuberculosis (TB) vaccines could prevent sustained infections in high-risk adolescents. A prevention-of-infection phase 2 trial in South Africa demonstrated that revaccination with the Bacille Calmette-Guerin vaccine significantly reduced sustain TB infections in adolescents. Another experimental vaccine candidate, H4:IC31, also reduced sustained infections, although not at statistically significant levels. However, these results mark the first time a subunit vaccine has shown any indication of ability to protect against TB infection or disease in humans.