WBUR: Promising treatment for diphtheria developed at UMMS needs funding to bring to trial

UMass Medical School Communications

December 22, 2017

A new and promising treatment for diphtheria developed by MassBiologics of UMass Medical School could save lives each year in developing regions of the globe in turmoil where the disease is remerging, such as Yemen and Myanmar, but researchers need $1 million to $2 million to bring it to clinical trial, according to a Dec. 20 report on WBUR. The segment also aired on NPR’s Here and Now on Dec. 21.

Heidi Smith, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and senior director of clinical affairs at MassBiologics, told the station that the existing treatment for diphtheria is made from a horse serum, which can be difficult for some people to tolerate and is also in very short supply.

“There is a risk of allergic reaction to horse serum when patients are given it because their bodies recognize horse products as foreign,” Dr. Smith said. “The number of producers of equine serum in the world overall has rapidly declined.”

MassBiologics identified a human monoclonal antibody that neutralizes the toxin produced by diphtheria, an important advance that could replace the current serum-derived antitoxin. Prior to the introduction of a vaccine in the 1920s, diphtheria was a major cause of illness and death among children worldwide, killing hundreds of thousands. The infection, which spreads rapidly from person to person through coughing and sneezing, causes sore throat, fever and swollen glands as it destroys tissues in the respiratory system and makes it difficult to breathe. Despite the success of global immunization programs that caused a dramatic reduction worldwide, there are still thousands of cases reported annually in developing countries.

Smith said the biggest challenge is raising the money needed to produce the antibody necessary for clinical trials in humans. MassBiologics is a nonprofit FDA-licensed manufacturer of vaccines and biologics with a mission to develop products that address unmet medical needs or diseases of public health concern. Since 1894, it has continuously produced medicines to combat the threat of diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, RSV and other infectious diseases.

Learn more about the global health threat of diphtheria in the full WBUR segment, here:
Mass. Researchers Seek Funding To Keep Testing Diphtheria Treatment

Related story on UMassMedNow:
MassBiologics developing promising alternative treatment for diphtheria in wake of global antitoxin shortage