Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Indian scientists make breakthrough in fighting TB

By Khozem Merchant in Mumbai
Published: September 6 2004 08:02
Financial Times

Indian scientists said on Monday they had discovered the first new tuberculosis molecule in more than four decades, marking a breakthrough in combating a disease that kills 3m people worldwide each year.

The remedy is a milestone for India’s science elite, which believes the lower cost and high capability of India’s large biomedical community could make the country a leading, cost-effective location for global drugs R&D.

In tests on animals, the new molecule clears tuberculosis infections within two to three months, compared with six to eight months with current treatments, scientists said.

The molecule will be tested on humans and later on TB-infected patients in phased clinical trials that are expected to last five to six years before the treatment is ready for commercial launch. Patents have been filed in India and the US.

“We’ve been innovative and lucky. I regard this molecule among our top five scientific breakthroughs in terms of affecting people’s lives,” said Dr R N Mashelkar, chief scientific adviser to the government.

The molecule cost Rs90m ($1.9m) to develop over three years and will require additional investment of Rs250m.

The cost is less than that of similar efforts by global drug majors such as AstraZeneca, which last year was forced by spiraling drug discovery costs to open a $10m TB research centre in low-cost Bangalore in south India.

The discovery comes at a time when global drug giants have become more eager to find cures for TB because it is increasingly being contracted among people infected with HIV, making it a bigger potential threat in the developed world.

The new TB molecule has also excited India’s research community because it represents a triumph for a public-private drug discovery project launched in 2000. Efforts for treating tuberculosis was one of seven projects selected for accelerated R&D funding under the New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative. Twelve government research centres and universities and Lupin, a Mumbai-based pharmaceuticals company, jointly developed the molecule.

“It shows that private-public partnership is tenable,” said Dr Mashelkar, director general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, an umbrella body of 40 state R&D centres.

Eight million new cases of TB are registered each year, including 1m in India, mostly women. The economic cost of the disease is estimated at about Rs120bn annually in lost working days in India.

Researchers said the new molecule was particularly effective against “latent TB”, where the disease lingers without showing symptoms. Signs of the disease emerge when the body’s immune system weakens, but by then the TB may have worsened. The new treament was less toxic and no recurrence of the disease was evident in animal trials, experts said.

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