Cancer is a crowded market, pot has sleep and pain issues covered — or so they say — and companies dip in and out of respiratory diseases all the time.

But there are a few ASX-listed stocks that are tackling health issues that still rate as the ‘world’s biggest’ — even if they’re no longer sexy, or never were.

Alzheimer’s, mosquito-borne disease, HIV, short sightedness, and poo are five areas that five microcap stocks are deeply involved with in order to try to change the world.


Neuroscientific Biopharmaceuticals (ASX:NSB, $16m market cap) — Alzheimer’s and dementia

This biotech listed in July 2018 with a plan to treat Alzheimer’s, a feat that has so far defeated far larger companies.

Dementia, the umbrella category Alzheimer’s falls into, is the leading cause of death for Australian women and second leading cause of death for men, and there are only four drugs to treat it. Furthermore, says Dementia Australia, 91,000 Australians are diagnosed with dementia every year.

Those four drugs only treat the symptoms and are only effective for about six months, as they basically squeeze a little bit more run-time out of a progressively deteriorating brain.

In Australia, dementia was expected to cost over $15 billion in 2018. By 2056 that rises to $36.8 billion a year. Worldwide, in 2015, the cost of dementia was a whopping $US818 billion ($1.2 trillion).

The main areas of research have been the build-up of abnormal amyloid, drugs for which have all failed in late stage trials, and the main cause of Alzheimer’s, tau proteins.

So Neuroscientific is doing something different, by using what it calls the EmtinB therapeutic peptide to treat neurodegenerative dementia, Alzheimer’s, and degeneration of the optic nerve.

The latest results from animal trials this month indicate that it regulates levels of a particular neurotransmitter in the diseased brain and reverses pathological patterns.

A prior study on rat tissue showed nerve cells were able to talk to each other again, which has a correlation with brain impairment.


Bio-Gene (ASX:BGT, $27m market cap) — insect borne disease and insecticide resistance

This company is contributing to public health by decimating insect populations, which should reduce disease but also protect food sources.

The company has developed insecticides from naturally occurring beta-triketones, which originate in eucalypts.

Many insecticides are neonicotinoids which pose a threat to many species of bees, the pollinators of about one-third of the food we eat. A ban in Europe in 2018 was a win for bees, but a problem for agriculturalists who have few other products available to deal with insect pests.

Bio-Gene’s synthetic Flavocide is not a neonicotinoid, and was this month shown to kill resistant populations of mosquitoes carrying malaria, dengue and zika virus, and continues to show effectiveness against grain storage pests such as borer.

CEO Richard Jagger says resistance is an issue beyond mosquitoes — we see it with all types of insects that attack crops and animals, and it’s similar to the issue of antibiotics.

“The major way to manage these diseases at the moment is chemical intervention, that is controlling the pests via insecticides,” he said.

“Unfortunately the insecticides we are currently using are losing their effectiveness due to resistance. Due to over or inappropriate use, they are losing their effectiveness, meaning more survive interaction with the chemistry, which in turn means we get more resistance. It is a battle, in the words of the experts, we are losing.”

Insect-borne disease accounts for 17 per cent of global communicable diseases and claim about 700,000 lives every year, mostly children.

The problem is growing with population growth and climate change. A child dies every two minutes from malaria, and Bio-Gene’s lead researcher Professor Catherine Hill from Purdue University says death due to dengue fever has increased 30 fold in the last 50 years.

“In addition, these diseases are known to exacerbate poverty and prevent economic development,” she said.

Bio-Gene is yet to commercialise its products, but a partnership with German chemicals company BASF is underway for grain storage protection. Research this month hit a milestone showing the product has residual nine-month effectiveness against grain borer, a key outcome required for use in agriculture.

Jagger says the mosquito trial gives the company solid data to talk to the major players, and generally Bio-Gene has been able to show it can control insects that are resistant to other chemistries, safely.

“Ultimately we have the potential to address the issues of food production and disease control with a safer class of chemistry which can control resistant populations of pests,” he said.


Immuron (ASX:IMC, $25m market cap) — Travellers’ diarrhoea

Anyone in the throes of a holiday-ruining bout of gastro will agree this is a critical issue, felling both rich and poor and able to strike without warning anywhere.

Immuron is working on a way to prevent Delhi-belly from ever happening.

They’re looking at Travellers’ diarrhoea, an illness that affects 30-70 per cent of the world’s 1 billion travellers every year, and at other nasties Campylobacter, a common cause of ruined holidays, and Shigella which is one of the bacteria behind those rare instances which require not just a run to a pharmacy but to the hospital.

Immuron already has a product on the market — Travelan — which generated $741,000 in the September quarter as a diarrhoea treatment and as a preventative, and is on track to beat last year’s $2.4m take.

But it’s the campylobacter and shigella research that could be its biggest contribution to world health. Travelan is effective against 180 known pathogens and also against 71 strains of Cholera that Immuron has tested it on.

Diarrhoea is a major global health issue, accounting for about 1.3 million deaths each year, of which 500,000 are young children, according to the WHO. For cholera, the organisation estimates 1.3 million to 4 million cases a year and 21,000 to 143,000 deaths.

Immuron received $5.5m in October to work with the US Navy on an oral therapeutic for Campylobacter, and in 2018 was commissioned to look at a therapeutic for Shigella for the US military.


Visioneering Technologies (ASX:VTI, $22m market cap) — myopia

In Asia, as many as 90 per cent of children are short sighted, thanks to a lot of time spent on ‘near work’ and not enough time spent outdoors in the sun.

The myopia however isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that as they grow up, if it’s not treated or reversed, they can go blind.

Visioneering has developed a contact lens that corrects myopic eyes and can be used by young children.

Myopia occurs when light beams entering the eye converge in front of the retina (conversely, long sightedness is when they focus behind the retina), because the whole eyeball is too long.

But regular lenses make the light rays converge on the retina, in effect lengthening the focus, but don’t do the same for peripheral light. The eyeball keeps lengthening to compensate for that light, the myopia keeps getting worse.

Visioneering and its rivals are developing lenses that block out peripheral light and prevent extra eyeball lengthening.

Dr Stephen Snowdy founded Visioneering in 2008, and has since won approval to sell the lens in the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore.

In the September quarter, the company inked a deal with Menicon, Japan’s biggest contact lens maker, to provide its myopia lenses for Menicon on a white-label basis.

In November rival lens maker Cooper Vision won FDA approval for its child multifocals to halt myopia – the first specific US consent for that indication — making Dr Snowdy very happy.

READ: Health: FDA approval is eye candy for Visioneering’s kiddie contact lens

He says it will clear the way for Visioneering’s lenses to win similar approval, but without the marketing outlay Cooper Vision will need to spend to win optometrists and parents over.


Biotron (ASX:BIT, $37m market cap) — HIV

As the generation who were most at risk of HIV ages, the long-term health effects of having the disease, and its more advanced version AIDS, are becoming apparent: depression, prolonged immunodeficiency, and chronic immune activation are some.

Which is pushing countries such as China, where HIV cases surged a year ago, to start looking at cures, rather than treatment, to remove the long-term burden on the healthcare system.

Biotron came out of the dark in 2018 when it said its small molecule therapy, BIT225, was having a significant impact on patients with HIV-1. HIV-1 is the most common and infectious variety of HIV.

It was a big moment for Biotron, which has for years been developing a therapy to treat viral infections including HIV-1 and hepatitis C.

The test results were “a major step to the ultimate goal of curing HIV-1 infection”, managing director Dr Michelle Miller said at the time.

In HIV-infected people, the virus hides in long-lived cells known as macrophages that persist even in patients who show no detectable virus in their blood.

Biotron has previously shown that its BIT225 drug attacks HIV-1 growing in macrophage cells.

READ MORE: These are the 22 small cap biotechs closest to bringing a drug to market

At Stockhead, we tell it like it is. While Bio-Gene is a Stockhead advertiser, it did not sponsor this article.”