The Medical Research Council (MRC) has awarded a grant of £3.5m to researchers from the Blizard Institute, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), and University of Cape Town (UCT) to carry out a trial to determine whether a weekly vitamin D supplement can prevent tuberculosis (TB) in South African primary school children.

The team of researchers, led by Professor Adrian Martineau at the Blizard Institute and Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, at the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, UCT, will conduct a clinical trial in 5,400 primary schoolchildren in townships around Cape Town – an area where TB and low vitamin D levels are very common. The trial will begin in the second quarter of 2016.

They will attempt to discover whether the supplement, taken by mouth for three years, can reduce the risk of acquiring ‘latent TB infection’ (LTBI) – a dormant TB infection that may develop into active, symptomatic TB in adolescence or early adulthood. Approximately 80 per cent of people in South Africa will have acquired LTBI by the time they reach adulthood. Preventing people - especially children - from acquiring LTBI in the first place could therefore reduce the number of people who go on to develop active TB.

Professor Martineau said: “If the results are positive, our study could have global importance and several groups could benefit. Vitamin D deficient people at risk of TB would benefit from the discovery of a cheap, safe method of reducing their TB risk. The TB control community would benefit from the discovery of a new tool for TB control and TB researchers would benefit from new scientific insights into the effects of vitamin D.”

Vitamin D has long been recognised to boost immunity to TB bacteria. Before the discovery of antibiotics, cod liver oil (rich in vitamin D) and sunbathing (which boosts vitamin D levels) were both used to treat TB while laboratory experiments show that vitamin D helps white blood cells to kill TB bacteria. Studies in patients also show that those with lower vitamin D levels are more susceptible to acquiring LTBI after exposure to an infectious TB case.

Professor Linda-Gail Bekker said: “TB transmission rates are unacceptably high in many of our communities. More than half the children entering high school are already, unknowingly, infected with the TB bacteria. While we remain committed to early detection and treatment of TB cases, additional interventions are urgently needed to reduce transmission in these communities and it’s clear that to have an impact, our intervention will need to be in pre- adolescents. Should Vitamin D supplements prove to be effective in preventing TB infection, this could be a valuable tool in our efforts to combat this dreadful public health challenge.”

Tuberculosis (TB) kills 1.5 million people each year while The World Health Organisation aims to eliminate it by 2050.

Researchers from the Blizard Institute at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) are calling on the medical community to reconsider developing a known drug to treat people with relapsing Multiple sclerosis (MS) after new evidence shows it does not increase the risk of cancer as previously thought.

The drug called Cladribine is already licensed and in use for people with leukemia, a blood disease. Previous studies, ran with patients at Barts Health NHS Trust in London, showed Cladribine to be highly effective in treating relapsing MS. One trial showed the drug reduced relapses by over 50 per cent, and nearly 50 percent of people showed no signs of disease activity at all over two years. However, Cladribine was refused market authorisation on the suspicion it may cause cancer based on the interpretation of previous data.

A new study published in the journal Neurology: Neuroimmunology & Neuroinflammation* compared the incidence of cancer where patients had been treated with Cladribine to other studies where they had been treated with other similar drugs that are currently licensed for MS.

The team from the Blizard Institute at QMUL compared data from the 11 pivotal trials that were used to support the licensing of seven different drugs to examine the cancer risk. They found there was no evidence for an increased risk of cancer in people with MS taking Cladribine.

Cladribine appears to be more effective, safer, easier to use and could potentially be cheaper than other current drugs used to treat MS.

“Our research shows that clinical academics and drug makers should continue to develop Cladribine for people with relapsing MS as the risk of developing cancer is no greater than for other types of current medication,” said Dr Klaus Schmierer, lead author and Reader in Clinical Neurology at QMUL and Consultant Neurologist at Barts Health NHS Trust.

He added: “As well as being easier and cheaper to administer, Cladribine benefits female patients who want to get pregnant. Other drugs used to treat relapsing MS need to be stopped during pregnancy and that can expose women to increased risk of MS disease activity. That’s not the case with Cladribine, which has a long lasting effect.”

It is estimated that over 120,000 people with MS live in the UK and it affects over two million patients globally. MS, which is a chronic, inflammatory condition of the central nervous system affects young adults and has a substantial impact on quality of their life, employment, and relationships.


Zoe Ballantyne is a student on the MSc Global Health, Law and Governance programme. She is currently an Intern at the World Health Organization:WHO. Here she explains more about her experience.

What motivated you to apply for an internship at WHO?

I was interested in getting exposure to policy level work in a global organisation. The content of my Masters programme along with my medical background seemed to lead me in the direction of WHO, and the time was right to put my investment into my studies into some kind of real world experience.

Tell us about your role and what you do.

I am one of three interns currently in the HPU. I am working on one of the thematic areas for the 9th Global Conference on Health Promotion which will take place towards the end of next year. The first few weeks involved lots of reading to understand the subject of health literacy, and since then I have put together an abstract for a presentation at another conference next year. I am working on developing a questionnaire through which to assess countries’ activities in the area health literacy, and a complimentary literature review. Hopefully the work will contribute towards a background paper for the 9th GCHP.

What have you enjoyed most?

I have a real interest in the subject area of my work, and developing my knowledge and expertise on the subject is really enjoyable. I also feel very fortunate to be experiencing the life and culture of the WHO HQ and meeting other interns and experts here.