Glaxo Holdings plc of London, announced Thursday that it willspend more than $15 million to establish a five-yearinternational research program to find better approaches totuberculosis using modern molecular biology.

Tuberculosis is resurging in industrialized countries as well asin less-developed parts of the globe partially because of theemergence of antibiotic-resistant strains.

Although antibiotics are available to treat TB, "we still haven'tput the resources into understanding how TB works," saidNancy Pekarek, manager of media relations at Glaxo Inc. inResearch Triangle Park, N.C., the U.S. subsidiary of Glaxo plc.

"Though some in the West believe TB had ceased being athreat," said Richard Sykes, Glaxo plc's deputy chairman andchief executive, "it is, in fact, a major public health problem.Now we have the tools of modern biochemistry and molecularbiology to point the way to new targets for drug action."

The $15.4 million initiative was announced at the LondonSchool of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's third annual publichealth forum, "Tuberculosis -- Back to the Future."

The Glaxo TB initiative will coordinate and focus resources withacademic research partners. Likely collaborators in the UnitedKingdom and overseas have already been identified, and theirproposals are under discussion. Research is expected to beginlater this year in a highly interactive, managed fashion under a"Joint Research Body" led by Glaxo to expedite communicationbetween collaborating centers, enhance efficiency and lenddirection.

To search for novel targets for drugs, the research will addressthe genetics, molecular biology and biochemistry of theenzymes involved in bacterial cell wall synthesis, with aparticular emphasis on the mechanism of drug resistance.

The possibilities for better vaccines also will be explored. Thecurrent inoculation, the BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin) vaccine,is not widely used in the U.S. because doctors do not consider itvery effective, although it is commonly used in other countries,said epidemiologist Peter Small of the Stanford UniversityMedical School. Small published research in Thursday's issue ofthe New England Journal of Medicine showing that AIDSpatients can become reinfected with TB after an initial bout.

People with suppressed immune systems, in which vaccineswould not be effective, are particularly susceptible to infectionwith the mycobacterium that causes TB. The respiratoryinfection is currently treated with combinations of two to fourantibiotics for at least six months, although patients frequentlyfail to complete their full course of therapy, Pekarek said,adding to development of drug-resistant strains.

Approximately 10 million new cases of tuberculosis arediagnosed worldwide each year, she said, and about 3 millionpeople die from the disease annually. Up to 15 million peoplein the U.S. are infected with TB, and 21,000 Americans developnew active cases annually.

-- Nancy Garcia Associate Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.