A consortium of seven pharma companies and four research institutions have started to screen drug candidates in a joint effort to develop better treatments for tuberculosis.
The long-term goal of the previously-announced TB Drug Accelerator project is to develop a regimen that cures patients in only one month. Existing drugs to treat the infection - which have been used for decades - generally require six months to cure the disease and 20 to 30 per cent of patients drop out of therapy before completion.
Low compliance rates lead to increased mortality and TB drug resistance, whilst allowing patients to continue to infect others, according to the consortium.
Shortening treatment regimens to even two months would keep an additional 1m people on treatment each year, it predicts.
Abbott Laboratories, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and Sanofi are the seven companies who have signed up to the project, which is backed by $20m in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
They have all provided access to certain parts of their in-house compound libraries in order to allow the screening effort to get underway with the help of scientists at the US Infectious Disease Research Institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Texas A&M University and Weill Cornell Medical College.
Near-term objectives are to develop five new preclinical drug candidates with treatment-shortening potential within five years, and proof-of-concept for a one-month three-drug regimen within 10 years, said the consortium in a statement.
TB is the second leading infectious cause of death worldwide, and killed nearly 1.4m people worldwide in 2010 alone, mainly in low- and middle-income countries.
There is a pressing need for new therapies, although one near-term candidate for multi-drug resistance TB - Johnson's & Johnson's bedaquiline - has just been submitted for approval in the US. The drug is the first new agent to be submitted for approval in 40 years.
The paucity of new agents coming through pharma industry pipelines reflects the need for "a new kind of partnership, connecting not only academia and industry, but drug company with drug company", according to Dr Carl Nathan, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College.
AZ also recently announce a separate partnership with Cellworks to develop treatments for multi-drug resistant strains of TB.