October 02, 2016

Research Roundup: Kid-friendly TB treatment, drug manufacturing on-the-go, diarrheal disease, and more

Senior Program Assistant
A child in Delhi holds new appropriate, child-friendly TB medicine in the correct doses. Photo: TB Alliance
A child in Delhi holds new appropriate, child-friendly TB medicine in the correct doses. Photo: TB Alliance

This weekend, Kenya became the first country to roll out the world’s first and only pediatric tuberculosis (TB) medicines. TB infects one million children each year, resulting in 140,000 deaths, and yet, children have historically been treated with crushed up pills in estimated doses. The new formulations, which were developed by TB Alliance, are not only appropriately dosed for kids, but they are fruit-flavored and dissolvable—making them much more kid-friendly than a handful of bitter pills that must be swallowed. Kids must remain on treatment for six months, and the improved dose, flavor, and delivery are expected to have a significant impact on adherence to the regimen, preventing the development of drug-resistant strains. An additional 17 countries have placed orders and plan to introduce the medicines in the coming months.

Vaccines and drugs could soon be manufactured on-the-go with the use of a portable, handheld kit developed by researchers at Harvard University. The kit contains all the ingredients needed to produce biologics (medical products derived from biological, rather than chemical sources): both the DNA that triggers the production of proteins to fight disease and the proteins that synthesize the final product. The DNA and proteins are freeze-dried into pellets, making them easy to store and transport, and with just the addition of water, the vaccine or therapy is ready to use. The team put the kit to work, successfully producing four different biologics, however, the vaccine candidate had to be purified before use. More research and testing is needed, and it could be more than a decade before such a system would be safe and appropriate for use in low-resource settings.

Diarrheal diseases are a leading cause of death among children under five, and a new study suggests that 89 percent of cases are caused by pathogens. Further, 78 percent of cases are caused by just six pathogens, including rotavirus, Shigella, enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC), Cryptosporidium, Campylobacter, and adenovirus. The researchers analyzed stool samples from more than 10,000 children under five, half of whom had diarrhea, to determine the leading causes of childhood diarrhea. Of the six, there is currently only a vaccine against rotavirus, however, GHTC member PATH is currently developing vaccines against Shigella and ETEC.

Scientists are exploring whether the powerful antimicrobials created by certain species of ants could be used to fight infection in humans. Over the past 15 million years, more than 200 ant species have evolved to farm fungi—a symbiotic relationship in which the ants collect plants, feed them to fungi, and in turn, the ants feed off of the fungi. However, some ant species are vulnerable to hostile fungi that attack the ants’ nests and farmed fungi and have consequently adapted to fight off pathogens. These species cultivate bacteria—which appear as white patches along the ants’ bodies—that produce antibacterial and antifungal compounds. So far, the results have been encouraging: 1 in every 15 of these antimicrobial agents have proved promising in the lab, compared to just one in a million of those discovered through soil sampling.