The Business of Global Health No. 18

Ebola Dx Advances  Containing the West African Ebola outbreak will be greatly aided by a rapid diagnostic test that can be used to diagnose suspected cases and initiate treatment as early as possible. And progress is being made. As reported in FierceDiagnostics, Roche, the Swiss big pharma, recently received emergency authorization from the USFDA for its diagnostic test that can analyze up to 96 samples in three hours. The authorization permits labs to use the test for a defined use (identification of the Zaire strain) and time. The test is PCR-based and therefore requires sophisticated lab equipment, as do two other tests by bioMerieux (also recently authorized) and Cepheid (under development). More low-resource-friendly, point-of-care diagnostics are also under development. Colorado-based Corgenix Cogenix received a $3 million NIH grant to advance its Ebola diagnostic, an antibody-based assay (ala a home pregnancy test) that may deliver results within minutes. Locally, the Massachusetts state Life Sciences Center kicked off an Ebola diagnostic development program with a $1 million grant to a consortium of academic labs and companies to be lead by the not-for-profit company, Diagnostics for All (DFA) (FierceDiagnostics story). The consortium’s goal is to raise an additional $4.5 million for development and testing of DFA’s paper-based, isothermal PCR test with a prototype ready for trials in six months.

SCD, A Global Disease  I was encouraged by learning that a biotech start-up, backed by a rock-star VC company no less, is intent on developing a treatment for sickle cell disease (SCD). As reported by FierceBiotech story and press release press release, SF-based Global Blood Therapeutics raised an additional $48 million to support clinical trials of its lead drug candidate, a small molecule designed to prevent the polymerization of hemoglobin, the base cause of the “sickling” of red blood cells and the painful and debilitating sequella. Although a rare disease in the US (100,000 patients), SCD is endemic in Western Africa where the genetic condition confers resistance to malaria but also likely contributes to the high rate of child mortality (see my post, “Still Neglected”). As quoted in the story, CEO Ted Love sees a global opportunity: “There are 25 million people in the world with this problem. It’s a huge, huge health problem globally. And we think this is a beautiful opportunity to do something dramatic.”

Revenge of the Microbes  For more than 20 years, the development of antibiotics to treat infectious disease has suffered “disinvestment” by the pharmaceutical industry, despite the clear need for drugs to treat new strains of drug-resistant microbes and new emerging diseases (see my posts, Revenge of the Microbes Replay and Microbes II). The tide may be turning though. Recently two biotech companies have had successful Phase III trials of new antibiotics. Based on those results, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals is on track to get approval for a new drug to treat gram-negative (bacterial) pathogens (FierceBiotech story), and Cempra saw a 30% jump in its stock price after it announced results for a drug to treat community acquired bacterial pneumonia (another FierceBiotech story). And at least one big pharma, Merck & Co., is investing substantially in new antibiotics through its pending $9.5 billion purchase of Lexington-MA-based Cubist. Cubist sells $1 billion per year of an antibiotic, Cubicin, and recently received approval for a second drug, Zerbaxa, both of which Merck is likely to push globally (FiercePharma story).

Slow News Week  It has been a slow week for news but my BSP (blog service provider) generated some end-of-the-year statistics that I can share. In 2014, this blog was viewed 3,900 times with April 18th being the busiest with 94 views of the 2013 post, “(Not So) Way Back Machine”. Apparently, the most views are coming through (whatever that is) and are from the US with the UK and India next with about 160 each (Mabuhay! to whomever did the 18 views from the Philippines). Who’da thunk it?


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