Trinity researchers make tuberculosis breakthrough

Our understanding of how the disease works has grown considerably

Trinity researchers have made a breakthrough with the infectious disease tuberculosis. Although tuberculosis (TB) is a treatable disease, the infectious illness is still very much a public health concern, having caused the deaths of 1.5 million people in 2018 alone. The World Health Organization estimates that in 2018 there were 484,000 new cases of TB with resistance to rifampicin – the most effective first-line drug. This threat of antibiotic resistance is only heightening as patients continue to stop taking antibiotics before the end of their prescription. When this happens, some bacteria survive and can adapt to become resistant to the antibiotic that was destroying them.

New strides are being made in TB treatments and our understanding of the disease is becoming ever more clear. A team of researchers in Trinity published a paper in Cell Reports earlier this year, detailing a method to fight the effects of TB within the immune system. TB invades white blood cells in the immune system. Once inside these cells, they can reproduce and hideout undetected within the immune system. 

Trinity researchers found that when these white blood cells are constantly infected, glycolysis (the process in which the source of our bodies energy is produced) is inhibited and so our body’s immune system begins to work less effectively and the infection can hide safely within the body. 

They discovered that a specific molecule, named micro-RNA 21, inhibits the glycolytic cycle and this micro-RNA is promoted by the infectious agent of TB. However, they also discovered that another molecule, named interferon gamma, promotes glycolysis by targeting the micro-RNA 21. Dr. Frederick Sheedy of the School of Biochemistry & Immunology was part of the team who made this discovery. He stated: “We found that when TB-infected cells are treated with a key ‘interferon gamma protein signal’, which is normally produced following vaccination, they will remove this microRNA to effectively relieve the brake and restore our normal immune response.”

“Novel therapies seem on the horizon, and are desperately needed.”

Dr. Sheedy appears certain that this new research could have important implications in future treatment of TB. With a molecule to essentially throw a spanner in the works of the infection, novel therapies seem on the horizon, and are desperately needed. Dr. Sheedy explains: “What is particularly promising from a societal impact perspective is that as well as increasing our knowledge of how TB corrupts our normal immune response to infection, our identification of the microRNA-21 means that scientists should be able to develop improved immunotherapies or vaccine strategies to help in the fight against TB infection.”

Over 95% of cases and deaths caused by TB are in developing countries. With new strains of multi-drug resistant bacteria emerging frequently, now is better than ever to increase our efforts to eliminate the disease. According to the World Health Organization: “Worldwide, only 56% of MDR-TB patients are currently successfully treated.” 

However, this recent breakthrough is hopefully a sign of things to come, as funding for TB research throughout the world is increasing regularly. According to Treatment Action Group (TAG): “Global TB research funding totaled US$906 million in fiscal year 2018, an increase of US$134 million from 2017. This is the highest level of funding ever recorded by TAG. TB scientists and their advocates should feel encouraged by three back-to-back years of increasing investments from 2016 to 2018.”

Cian Lynch

Cian Lynch is the current SciTech Editor of Trinity News.