A team of researchers from Trinity College Dublin and St James’s Hospital, led by Dr Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, has just published a study in the journal Immunity which could revolutionise the way that tuberculosis (TB), especially in difficult cases, is treated.
The breakthrough concerns how the human immune system responds to TB, thus opening up the possibility to develop more effective vaccines and personalised therapies.
Ireland, and Dublin in particular, have had an unhappily long relationship with the disease, with around 400 notified cases of TB in Ireland each year. It remains one of the largest killers worldwide, alongside HIV, with 1.5m people killed by TB in 2014.
The team, composed of Dr Ní Cheallaigh; professor in respiratory medicine at St. James’s, Dr Joe Keane; and professor in immunology at Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute Ed Lavelle, focused their research on a specific protein ‘Mal,’ a different version of which is present in about 25% of the European population who have increased susceptability to TB. Their findings showed for the first time that Mal is involved in cell signalling as a response to Interferon Gamma, a chemical mastering immune reactions.
In a press release, Dr Keane said of the research, which was funded by the Health Research Board, the Royal City of Dublin Trust and Science Foundation Ireland: “In St James’s Hospital, we treat drug-resistant TB patients who need novel immune treatments, like Interferon, which can be optimised because of this research.”
Dr Ní Cheallaigh commented: “Having this different form of Mal affects how intensely you respond to Interferon Gamma – if you’ve one form you have a big response, if you have another form you have a dampened down response. We’ve discovered a whole new function for this protein Mal.”
Professor Lavelle brought broader perspective to the findings, which he said could also enlighten researchers further about Interferon Gamma’s involvement in the immune system’s response to other infectious diseases and cancer, and to the future development of vaccines for these diseases.