Perceived by the general public as a disease that largely has been tamed, tuberculosis kills about 1.5 million people worldwide each year – including an average of one person every seven hours in Europe. Faced with 9 million new infections annually, and mutating strains of the tuberculosis bacteria that confound the medical community, a high-profile European Union research project is working to coordinate the development of stronger, longer-lasting vaccines.
The EU-funded NEWTBVAC project has helped advance 7 of the 14 tuberculosis (TB) vaccine candidates currently in clinical trials. Another 36 vaccine candidates are in the discovery phase or pre-clinical development. These advances bring hope to countries such as China, India, Indonesia and South Africa, where up to four people per 1,000 have the airborne disease.
The NEWTBVAC project is coordinated by the TuBerculosis Vaccine Initiative (TBVI) in the Netherlands. Part foundation and part network, TBVI is a non-profit organisation - set up at the suggestion of the European Commission - that is working to facilitate the development of new TB vaccines that are accessible and affordable for all people.
Why are new vaccines needed? “Because the type of vaccine that is most commonly used today (BCG) was developed nearly a century ago, and it provides only limited protection”, said TBVI Executive Director Jelle Thole. The result is that TB is making a devastating comeback.
“By 1993, it was very clear that tuberculosis was not under control. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global emergency,” according to Thole. That year, in fact, more people died from the disease than any previous year in history, according to the WHO.
“About a half-a-million people are infected with a drug-resistant strain of the bacteria,” Thole said. “We need better drugs to help these people. We need better diagnostics to diagnose the disease quicker and more accurately. And above all, we need new vaccines to protect people from getting TB, including drug-resistant TB,” explained Thole.
About 2 billion people are infected with the Mtb bacterium, of which some 10 percent will develop the disease.
“In addition to the loss of life, there is a huge economic cost of the disease,” added Thole. Some patients require medical treatment – both pills and injections – for up to two years, which can cripple a family’s productivity.
Primarily composed of European partners, TBVI financially supports and provides expertise to an integrated network of universities, institutes and companies. Many promising discoveries have been made already, and the organisation’s track record illustrates that these urgently needed vaccines can in fact be developed.
“Ten years ago there were no vaccines being tested in clinical trials,” according to Thole. “Now, there are 14.” Successful clinical trials could mean that new vaccines may be available by 2025, he said.
Importantly, Thole stressed, the organisation works with expert teams with backgrounds in private industry, which helps convert breakthroughs into vaccines more efficiently. “This ‘product thinking’ has really helped along a number of vaccines,” he said, “by making better decisions about whether and when to bring potential vaccines forward.”
Project acronym: NEWTBVAC
Participants: Netherlands (Coordinator), Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Republic of Korea, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom