Research Triangle Park home to breakthrough in combating drug-resistant tuberculosis

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. (WNCN) – More than 125 countries have reported cases of tuberculosis that are resistant to drugs. Without a new cure, 75 million people could die of the disease by 2050.

“I can just be talking to you or I can cough or sneeze and you can get tuberculosis,” said Doris Rouse who is the director of the Center of Global Health for RTI International, which is a non-profit research institute that has been working nearly two decades to find a cure.

Drug-resistant TB can mean two years of treatment that includes injections, infusions, and 14,000 pills. In developed countries, the success rate is only about 30 percent. It’s much lower in other nations.

In August, the drug pretomanid was developed in Research Triangle Park by RTI and the TB Alliance. It has been approved by the FDA.

“This is three pills taken every day over a six-month period. No injections, no infusions, (and) toxicities have been substantially reduced,” Rouse said. It also has a 90-percent success rate. It’s considered a breakthrough that will save millions of lives.

Rouse remembers the first time it was tested on humans in 2007 in South Africa.

“Patients will come into this study emaciated, night sweats, they’ve lost so much weight. They won’t eat anything; really terribly suffering,” Rouse said one nurse told him. “After just a few days on this drug, they’re eating everything we put in front of them. They’re sleeping through the night and obviously sleeping much better, and that was really just about the happiest day of my life.

“It provided motivation to continue to work on this drug and make sure it made it across the finish line,” Rouse added.

It would take another 12 years to be made widely available. The woman who was determined to see it through was inspired long ago by a man with leprosy. Rouse has a carving on her desk that was carved by an individual she saw in a leper treatment facility who had lost most of his fingers and much of his hand.

“I thought if he can do that, I can have the blessed stubbornness and the commitment to take a drug the distance.”

And she did.

“Under any major undertaking, I think it really is important. You can have brilliance and you can have great ideas, but to really take them the distance, to make them available, takes a lot of hard work and overcoming what naysayers may say,” Rouse said.

Funding came from the National Institutes of Health, the Gates Foundation and the Welcome Trust for the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development. The initial intention is to develop new drugs that would be affordable, accessible, and adopted by different countries.

“This public-private partnership model is a way to address healthcare needs that wouldn’t be addressed by a pharmaceutical company and couldn’t be addressed by a government independently,” Rouse said.

“But, by bringing their technical and financial resources together, they can cure some important issues that otherwise would be too challenging for one sector or another to do that. So, the proof of this model is another important and exciting outcome.”

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