February 10, 2019

Research Roundup: New funding partnership to develop drugs for leishmaniasis, an atlas of HIV mutations could improve vaccine design, and a high-tech pill could end drug injections

Ansley Kahn
Program Assistant
PATH/Wendy Stone

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Over the next three years, Wellcome has committed to provide the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) more than £10 million to develop new oral treatments for leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of a sandfly that affects over one billion people worldwide and causes tens of thousands of reported deaths each year. Until now, DNDi’s leishmaniasis research and development efforts have focused mostly on improving existing treatments, which can involve toxic drugs and often long, painful treatment courses. Bernard Pécoul, executive director of DNDi, said he is hopeful this new collaboration will enable DNDi to “radically overhaul the treatment landscape, by developing entirely innovative oral drugs that are safe, effective, affordable, and easy to administer.”

Scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center constructed an atlas of HIV mutations that they believe could aid researchers working to develop an effective vaccine. One of the challenges to developing vaccines against HIV is the virus’ ability to mutate in order to evade broadly neutralizing antibodies released by the immune system. Mutations can occur in the virus’ “envelope,” a protein layer that shuttles the virus into host cells and interacts with antibodies. Using a deep mutational scanning technology, researchers created a library of viruses with all the possible mutations that occur in the gene that encodes HIV’s envelope protein, and then by testing those against broadly neutralizing antibodies, were able to observe how each mutation affected the virus’ ability to escape the immune response. With more research, the scientists were able to pinpoint the structural area that contributed to the antibodies’ ability to block HIV. Broadly neutralizing antibodies remain a focus of HIV research, though drug makers have had limited success in developing vaccines focused on the viral envelope.

Scientists at M.I.T., Harvard, and Novo Nordisk have developed a device capable of delivering medicines made of molecules too large to be absorbed through the stomach or intestines, such as insulin, without injections. Inspired by the angled shape of a leopard tortoise’s shell, which helps the tortoise roll onto its feet no matter which way it falls, the Soma device is designed to predictably land on the stomach wall after being swallowed. Within the device is a small post containing an insulin needle held in place by a thin disc of sugar. After five minutes, the disc dissolves and the post is cued to painlessly inject the insulin into the wall of the stomach, where it is able to enter the bloodstream. The device then travels through the colon and is eventually eliminated by the patient. The Soma device has proven to work in rats and pigs though more safety testing is required. Researchers hope to start testing this device in humans in three years and hope that it can be used for an array of injectable drugs.