The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given special status to a drug in development at the University of Arizona that researchers say offers hope for a valley fever cure.
The FDA gave nikkomycin z Orphan Drug Status, which allows the government to assist in the drug’s development as a treatment for a rare, or orphan, disease.
Valley fever, a lung disease caused by a fungus found in desert soil, is designated as such because if affects fewer than 200,000 people a year — about 150,000, primarily in the Southwest.
There is no cure or vaccine for valley fever, only drugs to help control it. Experiments have shown that nikkomycin z eradicated the fungus in mice, making it a potential cure.
The FDA’s designation allows UA researchers to apply for about $1 million through the National Institutes of Health, said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the university’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence.
Human clinical trials could start as early as mid-2007, Galgiani said.
UA acquired nikkomycin z in 2005 after a drug company that owned it went bankrupt.
“The drug has been around since the 1970s, and the reason we don’t know whether it works yet or not is pharmaceutical companies don’t see treating valley fever as a very big market,” Galgiani said. “Now there is an interested sponsor that has the public health as its objective.”
The disease is a big problem in Arizona — “half of all the infections in the U.S. occur in Maricopa County,” Galgiani said.
And the state has seen a sharp upswing in cases this year.
The number of reported cases in March was an “astronomical” 716, almost four times the five-year average for that month, said state epidemiologist David Engelthaler. That means the state has recorded more than 1,700 cases of the disease in the first three months of 2006, when Arizona usually sees only about 2,700 cases a year.
Engelthaler has attributed the rise in part to population growth, construction and a recent climate that has enhanced the fungus’ strength and spore production.