A novel type of antibiotic has been shown in laboratory tests to powerfully attack and control tuberculosis, and some experts predict it could become the first new drug in 40 years...

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WASHINGTON — A novel type of antibiotic has been shown in laboratory tests to powerfully attack and control tuberculosis, and some experts predict it could become the first new drug in 40 years to combat the killer disease effectively.

Results from mouse experiments conducted by researchers in a Belgium lab of Johnson & Johnson suggest the new drug works better and faster than current medications, suggesting it could reduce by half the time required to cure TB. Early trials show the new drug is safe, and human testing is under way.

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Clinicians say there is a critical need for a new tuberculosis treatment because the disease has become increasingly resistant to current drugs. TB kills more than 2 million people a year worldwide. The last major new TB drug, rifampin, was introduced in 1963.

The candidate drug, R207910, is part of a new group of anti-TB compounds called diarylquinolines, or DARQ. It attacks tuberculosis by neutralizing an enzyme the TB bacillus uses to make energy. This mechanism is different from that of rifampin, isoniazid and pyrazinamide, the cocktail of drugs that is standard treatment for TB.

Dr. Koen Andries, lead author of a study on the drug published this week in the journal Science, said experiments with a laboratory-mouse species commonly used to test TB drugs show the new compound concentrates in the lungs and other organs that are the major targets of tuberculosis.

Andries said R207910 shows in mouse tests to be as active against TB as the drugs in the standard cocktail. Combined with isoniazid and pyrazinamide to form a new combination therapy, he said, “it achieves the same result after one month as is being obtained in two months by the standard care therapy.”

“That is why we are quite optimistic that we would be able to shorten treatment duration substantially, by about 50 percent,” he added.

In one study using a combination including R207910, the TB disappeared from the lungs of laboratory mice in two months.

The DARQ compound was found to be safe and well-tolerated when tested on healthy adults, Andries said. It is being tested in humans with active TB in the lung. However, he said, it may be five years before the drug is ready for general use.

Andries said patients infected with HIV and TB would be able to take a combination of R207910, isoniazid and pyrazinamide along with HIV drugs. The current standard TB cocktail is not compatible with some HIV drugs because of an interaction with rifampin, he said.

“This is dynamite stuff,” said Dr. Lee Reichman, executive director of the New Jersey Medical School National Tuberculosis Center. “They’ve shown convincingly that it kills the [TB] organism. It seems to exceed rifampin, which is the best drug we have.”

The World Health Organization said TB, usually in a latent form, infects about one-third of Earth’s human population. About 9 million active cases of TB develop each year, killing about 2 million patients. In the United States in 2002, 15,075 cases of TB were reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 802 people died.