Canada, Uganda test drug to treat brain disease

by Michel Comte

Canada is funding testing in Uganda of a popular off-patent antidepressant drug to fight a fungal brain disease that claims more than half a million lives in sub-Saharan Africa every year.

Sertraline, better known as Zoloft or Lustral, was first introduced by pharmaceutical giant in 1991. It has since become the second-most prescribed antidepressant in the United States.

But recent lab work at the University of Utah found that the drug also has a potent fungicidal effect, with several women taking it to alleviate symptoms of premenstrual syndrome reporting it also cleared up their .

With Canadian backing, researchers at Uganda's Infectious Disease Institute at Makerere University now hope to show that it can be used to stem early deaths from —an infection of the tissue covering the brain that claims 600,000 lives in sub-Saharan Africa annually.

"We're hoping to teach an old drug new tricks," lead researcher David Meya told AFP in a telephone interview from Uganda Tuesday.

"Our hope is that if this drug works against cryptococcal meningitis, we can cut by 40 to 50 percent, which would be a huge leap."

More than 30 percent of patients die within 10 weeks of onset of the disease, which has been linked to AIDS.

Currently, it is being treated with one of two drugs: flucytosine and . Both were developed in the 1950s and are "very expensive and not widely available in sub-Saharan Africa," Meya said.

A third drug, , has also been tried but is less effective, he added.

"So if we discover another drug that is more effective against cryptococcal meningitis and is cheaper, we can substantially bring down mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa."

Developing and testing a new drug from scratch typically takes seven to 10 years. Repurposing a drug already on the market in this case is expected to take only four years, Meya said.

"We already know this drug's safety profile. We just need to do a clinical trial to see how effective varying amounts of the drug are at treating a new disease," he noted.

Furthermore, since drug patents for are now expired, it would be possible for generic drug makers to produce and sell it more cheaply.

The Canadian government is helping Meya's team with $100,000 (US$99,364) in seed funding through a program called Grand Challenges Canada.

It is one of more than 100 grants to innovators in 13 developing nations and in Canada "to pursue bold, creative ideas for tackling health problems," according to a statement.

The funds—$10.9 million in total—are to be spent on trying out remote diagnostics and monitoring, health protection, as well as drug and vaccine development and accessibility.

Other projects include a vaccine for smokers against nicotine's addictive effect; a glucose meter cell phone attachment for diabetics and a cheap instant test strip to diagnose deadly diseases like dengue and Ebola.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Combo therapy helps knock out fungal meningitis

Apr 03, 2013

(HealthDay)— A drug regimen containing two powerful antifungal medicines—amphotericin B and flucytosine—reduced the risk of dying from cryptococcal meningitis by 40 percent compared to treatment with ...

Recommended for you

WHO: Millions of Ebola vaccine doses ready in 2015

Oct 24, 2014

The World Health Organization says millions of doses of two experimental Ebola vaccines could be ready for use in 2015 and five more experimental vaccines will start being tested in March.

Added benefit of vedolizumab is not proven

Oct 23, 2014

Vedolizumab (trade name Entyvio) has been approved since May 2014 for patients with moderately to severely active Crohn disease or ulcerative colitis. In an early benefit assessment pursuant to the Act on the Reform of the ...

Seaweed menace may yield new medicines

Oct 22, 2014

An invasive seaweed clogging up British coasts could be a blessing in disguise. University of Greenwich scientists have won a cash award to turn it into valuable compounds which can lead to new, life-saving drugs.

User comments