Dr Laura Cleghorn of the University of Dundee said there is a “pressing need” to develop new treatments for what some mistakenly consider “diseases of yesteryear”.
The university’s Drug Discovery Unit (DDU) has received a $5 million (£3.8 million) grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to expedite the delivery of drug candidates.
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The main focus of the work, which will last over three years, will be tuberculosis (TB). However, researchers will also be working to develop treatments for malaria and future viral pandemic diseases.
Dr Cleghorn, portfolio manager for TB drug development at Dundee, said there had been strenuous efforts to reduce the burden of disease worldwide over the years, but that progress was likely to be affected by the pandemic.
She said: “This is thought to be primarily due to limited access to TB diagnostic and treatment centers, which will result in more patients going undiagnosed and therefore transmitting the disease in their communities.
“It will be several years before the full impact of the pandemic on the TB burden is known, but there is already a continuing need for new and improved anti-TB drugs.
“All of the advanced drugs currently in use were identified prior to the 1960s, and all have an increasing degree of clinical drug resistance, so new therapies are urgently needed to combat this disease.
“With the potential increase in cases due to the pandemic, there is an even greater need for new therapeutics to address what is likely to be a clear increase in the burden of tuberculosis and mortality once the Covid-19 pandemic ends.
“When I tell people about my research, they are surprised that I am working on tuberculosis, because they think of it as a disease of the past, because it is not something that is common in the UK and other Western countries.
“This continues to be a major problem in low- and middle-income countries, so there is still a need to develop new and improved treatments for TB.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, TB was the world’s leading cause of death from infectious diseases, claiming 1.5 million lives in 2020, with about 10 million people being infected each year, the university said.
DDU previously received a separate $5 million (£3.8 million) grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to identify new treatment options for TB.
The new award will build on this work to allow Dundee scientists to move the compounds they have identified into preclinical development.
Researchers will seek to identify safe, orally dosed molecules that can significantly shorten the duration of drug therapy, which currently lasts six months or more and is very burdensome for the patient.
The announcement comes ahead of World TB Day on Thursday, which aims to raise awareness and understanding of the disease.
March 24 marks the day in 1882 when Dr. Robert Koch announced the discovery of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, paving the way for the diagnosis and treatment of this disease.