With the world's most advanced clinical trial nearing its end researchers on Tuesday unveiled a blueprint to direct the hunt for a more effective vaccine against tuberculosis.
The plan is part of a global push aimed at giving TB research the same high profile -- and funding -- that goes to diseases like AIDS.
"A blueprint has been developed, essentially a document on research plans for the next five to 10 years," said Hassan Mahomed, who heads clinical trials for the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative.
The fresh impetus to the research comes as scientists await the release in early 2013 of results from the world's most advanced TB vaccine trial -- one of 12 currently underway.
"That's quite an exciting development, because for the first time we will know if any of these new vaccines will have positive developments for preventing TB," Mahomed said.
Even if that vaccine proves unsuccessful, scientists are eagerly watching the results for critical insights into how to develop other vaccines.
The new blueprint sets international guidelines on how to compare the efficacy of TB vaccines, and looks forward to the next phases in development, when any viable vaccine would need to be licensed and distributed.
"To eliminate TB, we need to find a vaccine and there is still a lot to be done before we reach that stage," said Gavin Churchyard, chief executive of the Aurum Institute, a research group in Johannesburg.
"We aim to halve the burden of infection and death by 2016. New vaccines could significantly advance the fight against TB in both HIV positive and HIV negative patients," he said.
A vaccine was developed 90 years ago, but it only protects children against some forms of the disease. Adults who develop TB must undergo drugs for treatment, but new drug-resistant forms of the disease have confounded doctors.
The disease preys on weakened immune systems, so it has become a major scourge in South Africa which has one of the world's highest HIV levels, with 18 percent of adults infected.
That has made the country a key testing ground for vaccine research, hosting six clinical trials.
Once known as "consumption" for the slow wasting away of terminally-ill patients, one out of every three people is thought to be infected by the airborne TB organism, though only a fraction go on to develop the disease.