SA takes on TB challenge
Major pharmaceutical companies are neglecting research into killer diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis because there is no money to be made out of it.
This is the view of Dr Hulda Swai, research group leader and principal scientist in the encapsulation and delivery programme at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, in Pretoria.
Swai has headed the project for the past seven years, trying to improve the delivery technique and efficacy of TB drugs.
"There is no vaccine for malaria because it is not a disease of the Western world," said Swai.
Malaria and TB, she said, are regarded as poverty-related.
"There is no money to be made, so the major pharmaceutical companies are not interested."
The CSIR is looking for cures for malaria and TB, she said.
Her project manager, Belle Nyamboli, said: "For TB, we are still using drugs that were given to soldiers in the First World War.
"There are currently more than 20 drugs in phase three (clinical testing stage) for cancer, but for TB there is only one drug in phase three in the entire world."
Drugs take up to 25 years to pass the three stages of clinical testing. Standard TB medication at present consists of four tablets a day for six months but the drug now in clinical trials would require the patient to take only one tablet a day.
"It has been more than 40 years since the last TB drug was approved," said Nyamboli.
Swai's research group aims to improve the drug by using nano-technology to help it break through the cholesterol barrier protecting the TB bacterium from attack.
Eventually, Swai said, TB treatment would be shortened to only two months and patients would have to take only a single tablet once a week.
"The problem is that patients get tired of taking the medication and stop after a couple of months."
This allows drug-resistant variants of the bacterium to proliferate unchecked by competition from "ordinary" bacteria.
"We have shown the drugs to be effective by using [them] on healthy mice," said Swai.
The team started working on improving malaria drugs as reports accumulated of malaria strains also becoming resistant to treatment.
The best medication for malaria is still quinine, said Swai, but because of its high toxicity it has become unpopular.
"You feel you are dying because of the medication itself, not because of the disease," said Nyamboli.
The team is working on targeting quinine at the malaria parasite with the hope of being able to decrease the dose to treat the disease to only a third of that needed at present.