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Gates charity to give $280 million for TB study

September 19, 2007|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Tuesday that it would give $280 million for research and development of tuberculosis vaccines, diagnostic tests and drugs -- its largest package of TB grants ever.

The grants are intended to accelerate recent progress in fighting the bacterial disease, which is among the world's deadliest, said Dr. Tadataka Yamada, who heads the foundation's global health program. TB kills 1.6 million people annually worldwide, mostly in developing nations, according to the World Health Organization.

"It's a marathon, not a 100-yard dash," Yamada said, and efforts supported by the foundation would not reach the market for at least five years, if ever. "We are willing to take that risk. . . . We are hoping that at least some of our investments will bear fruit."

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the Gates grants would greatly augment federal support for TB studies, estimated at $150 million this year.

The largest Gates commitment -- $200 million over five years -- will go to the Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation in Rockville, Md., for trials of up to six experimental vaccines. The current TB vaccine is 80 years old and largely ineffective.

TB, a highly contagious lung infection, spreads via sneezes and coughs. Victims suffer fever, shortness of breath and weight loss, and sometimes cough up blood. Often, the disease can be cured with six months of antibiotic treatments, but new, deadly strains resist most antibiotics.

This year, Andrew Speaker of Atlanta triggered a global public-health scare when he traveled to Europe with a suspected case of extensively drug-resistant TB, or XDR TB. But later tests showed Speaker had contracted a less hazardous strain.

The Gates Foundation said it also would give $62 million over five years to the Geneva-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, to develop faster, simpler TB tests -- crucial for speeding up treatment. Definitive TB lab results now take up to 75 days.

A key research direction could be "gene chip" devices that reveal TB's "molecular fingerprint for resistance to particular drugs," Fauci said. Such detectors would take years to develop, but they could transform care, particularly in developing nations, by offering definitive results in hours.

The Gates Foundation also announced $18 million for work on medicines to treat drug-resistant TB. The money would go to seven research institutions.

Since its inception, the world's largest private philanthropy has committed nearly $8 billion to global health -- including $740 million for TB research.

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charles.piller@latimes.com

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