You know what's never fun? Having to take bad-tasting medication — especially if you're a kid.
When I was little, I had to eat these tiny bitter pellets for my asthma because I wasn't old enough to use an inhaler. My parents called them sprinkles and put them on ice cream to try and trick me into thinking they weren't disgusting, but that only seemed to enhance their nasty taste. To this day, I have trouble even looking at vanilla ice cream without feeling nauseated.
That said, while it definitely wasn't a pleasant experience, these pellets kept my asthma under control throughout my early childhood.
Now imagine you're a child in a developing country with life-threatening pneumonia, and you're not old enough to take an antibiotic like amoxicillin in pill form, which is all your local medical facility has available. Suddenly, ingestible meds — no matter how bad they taste — sound pretty good, right?
Unfortunately such child-friendly treatments are not always accessible, especially in low-income countries. It's a big part of why pneumonia is the leading cause of child death by infection worldwide even though it's totally preventable.
Photo via iStock.
Enter researcher Sangwei Lu and her brilliant idea.
She created a peanut butter-based amoxicillin that not only treats pneumonia in children but also gives them a much needed boost of nutrition.
Lu is an adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley in its School of Public Health. Since her areas of expertise are vaccinology and infectious diseases, when a Gates Foundation Global Challenge for a child-friendly formulation of amoxicillin came around, she was primed to participate.
Amoxicillin for kids often comes in the form of a powder that has to be mixed with clean water and, once reconstituted, has to stay refrigerated until used — two difficult things to come by in developing countries. Meanwhile her peanut butter-based amoxicillin (appropriately named NutMox) is "ready to use, stable at room temperature, and can be given to children who cannot swallow [a pill] or [have trouble] chewing," Lu writes in an email.
But it's not just a treatment for kids with pneumonia. Because NutMox has a protein-rich base, it can be combined with other ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to treat severe malnutrition, which also happens to be one of the main risk factors for pediatric pneumonia.
A child receives a peanut-butter based nutrition packet to help fight malnutrition. Photo via USAID Africa Bureau/Wikimedia Commons.
So it's a life-saving medicine and a viable preventative measure all in one.
Peanut butter also masks the taste of medicine, which means no kid suffering from pneumonia will have to endure the bitter grossness I had to.
It's no surprise that when PATH — a nonprofit that's leading the way in global health innovation — got wind of NutMox, they approached Lu to collaborate.
"I think it is a great opportunity given PATH's commitment to global health and their experiences working to develop medicines for people in need," Lu explains.
The partnership will no doubt help push NutMox's progress forward. And now, thanks to the grant they've received as a Gen H finalist, distribution of a final product to countries in need is a much clearer reality.
So far, pre-clinical testings of NutMox have been completed. The next step involves performing a trial using human volunteers to demonstrate that the amoxicillin formula is equivalent to a current formula that's been approved by the FDA. If the trial is successful, they'll work with pharmaceutical partners to obtain regulatory approval for NutMox as a new formulation of amoxicillin.
Photo via iStock.
A lot still needs to be done before it's ready for public use, but NutMox is in a great position to have a huge effect on children's health in the near future.
And such a useful treatment can't come soon enough.
As of right now, pneumonia accounts for 16% of all child deaths under age 5. Malnutrition is an underlying contributing factor, not just for pneumonia but all the other infectious diseases that are most life-threatening to children. So an antibiotic that both treats these diseases and curtails malnutrition could save countless lives.
We're living in an age where truly revolutionary medical advancements and innovations are being realized. It's about time we get them in the hands of the people who desperately need them.