A recent breakthrough in the global war against tuberculosis has not only raised hopes for the millions of people living with the disease, it has also highlighted what can be achieved through joint international medical research.
The research was conducted by a team of researchers from five countries and was led by Shanghai-based scientists, who said they found a new way to treat the world's second-deadliest infection agent (behind HIV/Aids).
Their findings were published last month in an international peer-reviewed medical journal, PLoS One, and they are of particular interest to developing countries, including China, which has about a quarter of the world's tuberculosis cases, compared with about 17.5 per cent of the global population, figures from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention show.
Scientists from China, the US, India, Kenya and Nigeria conducted the research, which was sponsored by the World Health Organisation and the governments of China and the United States.
Multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis has become one of the biggest challenges facing doctors and medical researchers around the world, as it infects millions of people every year, including about 1.3 million on the mainland, where it kills about 3,000 people annually, the Ministry of Health says. WHO figures, however, are much higher.
The team was led by Dr Wang Mingwei, director of the National Centre for Drug Screening, who said they identified a potential treatment method that targeted a crucial enzyme of the stubborn bacterial disease. The discovery, they said, could inhibit the enzyme, stopping the bacteria's growth and killing it.
Wang said other scientists had discovered ways to inhibit the enzyme, but those methods did not work if applied to live tuberculosis bacterium. 'The compound we discovered not only works on the enzyme, but also works on the live tuberculosis bacterium,' he said. 'The tuberculosis cells have thick walls, appearing like wax, and many compounds can't penetrate the cell wall.
'The structure of tuberculosis cells is well known, but they are extremely flexible in adapting,' he said, which explained their ability to flourish for thousands of years.
This discovery will help facilitate the discovery of new medicines, by essentially giving pharmaceutical researchers a new target at which to aim medicine.
Following publication of the team's work, Minister of Health Dr Chen Zhu wrote to Wang, saying: 'This is truly exciting progress! I just read the abstract in your article ... I believe this should become the model in our future co-operation in global health diplomacy.' Chen particularly noted the possible benefits of joint research between not only the East and West, but also among developing countries.
However, Wang conceded that tuberculosis might eventually develop resistance to the new treatment.
'What we need to do is to invent more drugs to combat this disease,' he said. 'The more, the better.'
The new findings are copyrighted by the WHO.
Dr Zhao Yanlin, a tuberculosis expert with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the compound identified by Wang's team was not a significant discovery, but did provide fresh clues for treatment of the disease.