China, Aeras team up to tackle TB vaccine

17 January 2012 - 11:07 By Reuters
Mycobacterium tuberculosis Ziehl-Neelsen stain. The bacteria has been stained red to show up against the blue tissue.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis Ziehl-Neelsen stain. The bacteria has been stained red to show up against the blue tissue.
Image: CDC

China’s top vaccine maker is teaming up with Aeras, a leading non-profit anti-tuberculosis institute, to design a new vaccine against TB when the world is fast running out of drugs to fight the disease.

The collaboration between China National Biotech Group (CNBG) and United States-based Aeras will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars” and both partners hope to offer a weapon that will protect against even drug-resistant strains of the bacterium.     

The tie-up coincides with the discovery in India of what some doctors have described as cases of totally drug-resistant TB, which were not treatable with any available drug.      

TB is caused by mycobacterium tuberculosis and destroys lung tissue, causing victims to cough up the bacterium, which then spreads through the air and can be inhaled by others.     

“Our cooperation with Aeras includes vaccine design, pre-clinical research, clinical trials, production and sales,” CNBG president Yang Xiaoming told Reuters in a telephone interview. “The ideal vaccine should guard against all strains of TB, including drug-resistant strains.”     

Aeras president and chief executive Jim Connolly said both parties would screen through their catalogues and identify the most promising vaccine candidates, move to pre-clinical studies and then clinical trials in the next few years.     

“From where we are, to develop a TB vaccine in China is going to take at least seven to ten years,” Connolly said. “The cost to develop vaccines ultimately goes into tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, both in direct costs of developing it as well as the costs of all the failures.”     

Aeras chose to work with China because of its significant TB burden and after it identified TB, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis as its top three infectious diseases.     

“They have a very strong emerging technical capability and the government has financial resources,” Connolly said.     

TB back with a vengeance

An ancient, long-neglected disease, the world has had no new vaccines or drugs to fight TB for decades even though it is still a leading killer. In 2010, 8,8 million new cases were reported, with 1,45 million deaths from TB worldwide.     

It was not until about 20 years ago that drugmakers began paying attention to the disease when it re-emerged in developed countries in patients whose immune systems were wrecked by AIDS.     

Worse, drug-resistant TB strains have risen in prevalence, yielding cases that are nearly impossible to treat.     

In India recently, 12 patients in Mumbai failed to respond to all first- and second-line drugs such as isoniazid, rifampicin, amikacin, capreomycin, and kanamycin. Manufacturers of TB drugs include Eli Lilly & Co, Sanofi SA, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer Inc, Bayer AG and many producers of generic drugs.     

The only vaccine against tuberculosis is Bacillus Calmette-Gu‚rin (BCG), which is 90 years old and the efficacy of which is in doubt. It works to some degree to protect against serious disease in infants and babies, but does nothing to protect teenagers and adults among whom most incidents occur.

There are now more than 10 candidate vaccines being developed and trialled.     

Connolly said clinical trials for their candidate vaccine will include patients from China, India and sub-Saharan Africa, home to most of the world’s TB sufferers.     

“This is not developing vaccines just for China, but also to be used in other parts of the world,” he said, adding that the product would be affordable to patients everywhere.