Every year, on 24 March, we mark World Tuberculosis (TB) Day. An initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the day was instated to raise public awareness about the impact of the disease on global health, as well as its social and economic consequences. 

The theme for World TB Day 2024 is ‘Yes! You and I Can End TB’ and, with TB drug discovery being one of the primary areas of research supported by the H3D Foundation, this is a statement we firmly believe in and strive to realise. 

TB in numbers

Despite gaining major ground in the fight against TB over the past few decades, it remains the infectious disease with the highest morbidity rates worldwide, claiming over 1.5 million lives per year. 

According to Stop TB Partnership, the figures in South Africa as of 2021 revealed an estimated:

  • 304 000 people who developed TB in that year
  • 163 000 people developed TB and co-infected with HIV in that year
  • 55 000 people who died because of TB in that year

On a global scale, WHO provides the following estimates:

  • 10.6 million people fell ill with TB in 2022
  • 1.3 million people died of TB in 2022

But, on a more positive note, an estimated 75 million lives have been saved since 2000 by global efforts to end TB.

TB research at H3D

In 2013, the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre at the University of Cape Town was awarded funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) for both TB- and malaria drug discovery research. Subsequently, the centre joined the Tuberculosis Drug Accelerator consortium (TBDA) in 2014. Since then BMGF have renewed the funding commitment to H3D twice, with co-funding from the South African Medical Research Council to support TB drug discovery. H3D has a portfolio of TB drug discovery projects ranging from screening stage through to late lead optimization.

Within the context of the TBDA, further collaborations were initiated with the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) and Eli Lilly, as well as Celgene Global Health. 

H3D also partnered with the HIT-TB consortium, taking advantage of collaborations with NIH research groupings as well as leading public and private institutions in exploring advanced research models to identify new medicines to treat TB.

“H3D has built an interdisciplinary platform to support TB drug discovery, with up-to-date and relevant international collaborative projects,” says Dr Richard Gessner, H3D Senior Investigator in TB medicinal chemistry. 

“Together, with the best minds in the field, we hope to contribute to the discovery of new and effective TB treatments.”

Seeking solutions for drug-resistant TB

The spread of strains of multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) and extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB) pose a significant challenge to global TB research.

As Dr Rosemary Swanson, Investigator in the H3D TB Biology Unit, explains: “It can be difficult to effectively treat patients, as treatment of drug-susceptible TB ranges from 4 to 6 months, and treatment of drug-resistant TB is even longer.”

“New drugs with shorter treatment durations, improved efficacy against resistant strains, and better patient tolerability are urgently needed,” says Dr Vinayak Singh, H3D Senior Research Officer in TB and AMR biology.

“H3D is providing a space to potentially discover these new drugs and develop them here in South Africa, one of the 30 high-burden TB countries,” says Swanson. “It also provides a space to teach future generations about TB and TB drug discovery.”

Collaboration is key

In the past two years, H3D partnered with the University of Limpopo and the University of Venda to boost  local tuberculosis (TB) research in South Africa. Both these partnerships are supported by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) through its Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships (SHIP) programme; the grants, valued at R3M and R2.4M respectively, will be distributed over a period of three years. 

These collaborations will support TB drug discovery capacity development, and contribute to finding solutions to the TB epidemic through innovative, African-led research.

R&D in Africa for Africa

On World TB Day, it is important to acknowledge that while significant progress has been made, we still have a long way to go in the global fight against this deadly disease that disproportionately affects low- and middle-income communities that are typically underserved by global pharmaceutical companies. 

Here at the H3D Foundation, we are committed to supporting the discovery and development of drugs on the African continent for the African continent to help end TB once and for all.