May 11, 2015

Research Roundup: inclusion of women in clinical trials, the future of vaccines, and diagnostics for counterfeit medicines and parasitic worms

Senior Program Assistant

United States Representatives Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Cynthia Loomis (R-WO) introduced the Research for All Act last week which calls for the inclusion of more women in clinical trials for products submitted for US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Drugs can have different effects on women and men, and as women are often underrepresented in clinical trials, there have been products on the market that are unsafe or less effective for women. While the FDA has made strides in recognizing and addressing this disparity and its potential consequences, this bill would require the FDA to “ensure that the design and size of clinical trials for products granted expedited approval … are sufficient to determine the safety and effectiveness of such products for men and women using subgroup analysis." Opponents fear that this legislation could increase the cost or length of clinical trials and consequently, product development.

Mark Prausnitz, director of the Center for Drug Design, Development, and Delivery at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has created a small patch covered with 100 minute needles intended to administer vaccines without a syringe and needle. Not only would the vaccination be virtually painless, but it could be self-administered, and it would not need to be refrigerated, making it accessible in remote areas with a paucity of skilled health workers or unreliable electricity. The patch has been used successfully to administer the measles vaccine to animals, and clinical trials in humans are expected to start in 2017. Prausnitz will also be testing a flu vaccine patch on 100 volunteers this summer. While the vaccine’s cost will remain the same, Prausnitz hopes the patch will be cheaper than syringes and needles.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have created simple, paper cards that can identify low-quality or counterfeit malaria medicines. The cards have 12 bars that change color when exposed to a crushed-up pill, and those bars indicate the presence and quantity of six different antimalarial agents. One third of antimalarials in sub-Saharan Africa are either entirely fake, diluted with different ingredients, or contain inadequate amounts of the antimalarial agents. These drugs can cause drug resistance and the additional ingredients can be harmful to patients. The cards, which currently cost US$0.50 each, are intended for use by pharmacists and customs offices, but only work for non-artemisinin-based antimalarials.

The leading approach to treating river blindness—mass administration of the medicine ivermectin—can be deadly to patients co-infected with Loa loa worms. However, the detection of these worms can be a challenge, requiring a microscope and a health worker trained to identify the worms in the patient’s blood. Daniel Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed a microscope that connects to a smartphone, takes a video of a blood sample, and detects the movement of Loa loa worms. The entire process takes about three minutes, a much shorter process than transporting a blood sample to a laboratory and counting the worms individually. While this device is an invaluable diagnostic tool, the article highlights the need for research and development of a drug that can combat both the Loa loa worms and the parasites responsible for river blindness.