Dr Laura Cleghorn, Tuberculosis (TB) Portfolio Lead at the Drug Discovery Unit, has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to a rise in TB infections globally.
Laura was speaking ahead of World TB Day (Thursday 24 March) and after the Unit received a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to accelerate the delivery of drug candidates in this space.
The work, to take place over three years, will expand on the DDU’s established successes in delivering candidates for infectious diseases. The primary focus will be on TB, where the DDU has built up an experienced team skilled in the specific challenges of TB drug discovery. They will aim to identify safe, orally dosed molecules with the potential to significantly reduce the duration of drug therapy that currently lasts for six months or more and is very onerous for the patient.
Despite often being seen as a historic disease in the West, TB remains a major global cause of both mortality and financial burden. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, TB was the world’s leading infectious disease killer, responsible for 1.5 million deaths in 2020 with an estimated 10 million people being infected per year.
Laura highlighted that although extensive efforts over many years in the field had started to make progress on reducing the global disease burden the pandemic is likely to impact this progress negatively.
“This is thought to be primarily due to reduced access to TB diagnosis and treatment centres, which will lead to more patients going undiagnosed and subsequently transmitting the disease within their communities. It will be a few years before the full effect of the pandemic on TB disease burden will be known but there was already an ongoing need for new improved TB therapeutics. All the front-line drugs currently in use were identified before the 1960s and all have increasing amounts of clinical drug resistance so novel therapies are urgently required to tackle the disease. With the potential increase in cases due to the pandemic there is an even more pressing need for new therapeutics to address what will likely be a clear increase in TB burden and deaths once the Covid-19 pandemic is curtailed.
“When I talk to people about my research, they are surprised that I work on TB because they think of it as a disease of yesteryear because it is not something that is prevalent in the UK and other western countries. This is still a major issue in low- and middle-income countries, so there is still a need to develop new and improved TB treatments.”
The DDU has previously received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify new treatment options for TB. The new award will build on that work to enable Dundee scientists to take the compounds they have identified forwards towards pre-clinical development.
The DDU is a member of the Tuberculosis Drug Accelerator (TBDA), a ground-breaking consortium of academic groups and big pharma companies, which aims to identify novel therapies to reduce significantly the treatment time for TB. The Unit is also a member of the European Regime Accelerator for Tuberculosis (ERA4TB), an Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) funded consortium that aims to accelerate new treatment regimens for tuberculosis.
World TB Day is observed on March 24 each year to raise public awareness and understanding about one of the world’s deadliest infectious killers and its devastating health, social and economic impact on people around the world. March 24 marks the day in 1882 when Dr Robert Koch announced that he had discovered the bacterium that causes TB, which opened the way towards diagnosing and curing this disease.
The theme of World TB Day 2022 – ‘Invest to End TB. Save Lives.’ –conveys the urgent need to invest resources to ramp up the fight against TB and achieve the commitments to end TB made by global leaders. This is especially critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that has put End TB progress at risk, and to ensure equitable access to prevention and care in line with WHO’s drive towards achieving Universal Health Coverage.