Background: In Malawi, high case fatality rates in patients with tuberculosis, who were also co-infected with HIV, and high early death rates in people living with HIV during the initiation of antiretroviral treatment (ART) adversely impacted on treatment outcomes for the national tuberculosis and ART programmes respectively. This article i) discusses the operational research that was conducted in the country on cotrimoxazole preventive therapy, ii) outlines the steps that were taken to translate these findings into national policy and practice, iii) shows how the implementation of cotrimoxazole preventive therapy for both TB patients and HIV-infected patients starting ART was associated with reduced death rates, and iv) highlights lessons that can be learnt for other settings and interventions. Discussion: District and facility-based operational research was undertaken between 1999 and 2005 to assess the effectiveness of cotrimoxazole preventive therapy in reducing death rates in TB patients and subsequently in patients starting ART under routine programme conditions. Studies demonstrated significant reductions in case fatality in HIV-infected TB patients receiving cotrimoxazole and in HIV-infected patients about to start ART. Following the completion of research, the findings were rapidly disseminated nationally at stakeholder meetings convened by the Ministry of Health and internationally through conferences and peer-reviewed scientific publications. The Ministry of Health made policy changes based on the available evidence, following which there was countrywide distribution of the updated policy and guidelines. Policy was rapidly moved to practice with the development of monitoring tools, drug procurement and training packages. National programme performance improved which showed a significant decrease in case fatality rates in TB patients as well as a reduction in early death in people with HIV starting ART. Summary: Key lessons for moving this research endeavour through to policy and practice were the importance of placing operational research within the programme, defining relevant questions, obtaining "buy-in" from national programme staff at the beginning of projects and having key actors or "policy entrepreneurs" to push forward the policy-making process. Ultimately, any change in policy and practice has to benefit patients, and the ultimate judge of success is whether treatment outcomes improve or not.