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WHO, Wyeth Launch Trial In Africa To Test New River Blindness Drug

The WHO on Wednesday announced plans for a clinical trial to test a new drug that “could halve the treatment period for river blindness [or onchocerciasis], a disease that threatens 100 million people mostly in Africa,” AFP/Dow Jones Newswires/CNN Money reports (7/1). “This is a devastating illness that has plagued 30 African countries for centuries, in particular the populations in the most remote areas ‘beyond the end of the road,'” Uche Amazigo, director of the African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), said (ANI/Thaindian.com, 7/1).

According to the WHO, fifteen hundred people from four sites in Ghana, Liberia and Congo will participate in the phase three trial to measure the effectiveness of the drug moxidectin over the next two and a half years, SciDev.net reports. River blindness is caused by the parasitic worm whose larvae are transmitted from person to person by blackflies. SciDev.net writes, “Adult worms can live in the body for up to 15 years, producing millions of larval worms that migrate through the skin and eyes – causing blindness” (Aguilar, 7/1).

“Moxidectin, now used to treat parasites in dogs, cats, horses and cattle, shows potential to destroy the worms that cause river blindness,” Reuters reports. The pharmaceutical company Wyeth has reformulated the drug for human use (MacInnis, 7/1).

“Since moxidectin kills not only the larvae but also sterilizes or kills the adult worms, it has the potential to interrupt the disease transmission cycle within around six annual rounds of treatment,” the WHO said in a written statement. This would be an improvement over the current drug used to fight river blindness, ivermectin, which is able to kills the parasitic worm larvae but not adult worms, requiring annual treatments for more than a decade for control of the disease (7/1).

In collaboration with Wyeth, the WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (WHO/TDR) will run the clinical trials. “WHO/TDR has been working with African investigators and institutions in the three countries since 2007 to ensure existing or new centres are capable of conducting the trials, and the hope is that this capacity building will enable further trials,” SciDev.Net writes (7/1).

“Wyeth Pharmaceuticals vice president Henriette Ukwu said the company was providing the drugs free of charge for the trial and planned to seek regulatory approval for their wider distribution if it is successful,” Reuters writes. “‘There is no commercial interest for this product,’ Ukwu stressed, saying the company would work to ensure those who need the treatment can access it through existing aid channels” (7/1).

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