BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

April 22, 2019

Research Roundup: AI advancing drug development, malaria vaccine tested in large clinical trial, and first-in-human universal flu vaccine trial

Ansley Kahn
Senior Program Assistant
GHTC
PATH/Gabe Bienczycki

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Atomwise, Inc., a biotech company using artificial intelligence (AI) for drug discovery, and Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) announced the discovery of drug-like compounds that could be used to develop first-in-class treatments for Chagas disease. DNDi scientists selected three therapeutic protein targets that would inhibit the action of the parasite that causes Chagas disease and for each protein, Atomwise screened millions of compounds using its AI-powered screening technology to predict those that bind and potentially inhibit the protein function. The compounds identified will now go on to further optimization and then potential drug development. While Chagas disease affects approximately six million people worldwide, current treatments are suboptimal, with long treatment durations and uncertain efficacy for those in the advanced stage of the disease.

A malaria vaccine found to confer up to 100 percent protection in early human trials with healthy volunteers will soon be tested in a large clinical trial for the first time. In early 2020, the vaccine—known as PfSPZ and developed by Sanaria— will undergo testing in a clinical trial of 2,100 people between the ages of 2-50 in Bioko, an island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. PfSPZ works by eliciting an immune response against the malaria parasite and is unique in that it employs the use of a whole malaria parasite instead of only a small number of genetically engineered parasite proteins like most malaria vaccine candidates and must be injected intravenously. If this initial trial is successful, Sanaria plans to carry out another trial on the island involving approximately 10,000 people to compare disease levels between communities that receive the vaccine and use standard malaria prevention measures with those that use only standard prevention measures.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has begun its first-in-human clinical trial of a universal flu vaccine that researchers hope will provide broad, durable, and long-lasting protection against multiple influenza subtypes—including those that might cause a pandemic—for all age groups. Developed by scientists at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the experimental vaccine “is designed to teach the body to make protective immune responses against diverse influenza subtypes by focusing the immune system on a portion of the virus that varies relatively little from strain to strain,” according to the NIH. The trial will gradually enroll 53 healthy adults between the ages of 18-70 years old and will assess how the participants’ immune responses to the vaccine candidate vary based on age and the likelihood of previous exposure to different influenza subtypes.

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