TB is second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent.
In 2011, about 8.7 million people worldwide fell ill with tuberculosis and 1.4 million died.
Multi-drug resistant TB is present in almost all countries surveyed, and about nine per cent of multi-drug resistant cases are extensively drug resistant—sensitive to very few available medicines and treatments.
This year’s recently released WHO stats on TB not only make sobering reading, they also emphasise the critical importance of the work of the Centenary Institute’s tuberculosis research program led by Professor Warwick Britton.
That’s been well recognised by Australia’s national medical research funding body, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Last week, the NHMRC announced grants totalling nearly $1.2 million to assist research at Centenary into developing vaccines against TB. Earlier this year, it awarded Professor Britton nearly $2.5 million towards a Centre of Research Excellence on tuberculosis control: from discovery to public health practice and policy.
And in March, Centenary opened a $1.2 million high-containment laboratory that will allow researchers to double their efforts to understand and fight back against TB, a bacterium that lives inside two billion people worldwide and kills three people every minute.
“We are working to understand,” says Professor Britton, “how the bacterium infects us and can hide so successfully from our immune defences for decades; why only 10% of infected people become ill; and how to stop the spread of TB by carefully managing infected people.
“In addition, we are applying what we learn to develop new ways of fighting TB, potential new drugs to treat TB, and new vaccines to protect us.”
In addition to its research work in Sydney, the Institute is heavily involved in containment programs in Vietnam and China.
Dr Magda Ellis is collaborating with molecular biologists from the Chinese National Human Genome Centre analysing the genes of 6,000 people in North-West China to identify what makes some individuals particularly susceptible to contracting TB while others are protected.
Dr Greg Fox is based in Vietnam where he is working to reduce the risk that family members face when a relative has active TB. He is also collaborating with Dr Bernadette Saunders in Sydney to analyse genetic variation in TB patients and control subjects in Hanoi in a study that parallels the Chinese work.
“The Centenary Institute’s contribution to the war against TB is broad and deep,” says Professor Britton. “It is important for us not only to assist the global fight against this deadly disease, but also to be prepared for an invasion of our own country.
“Multi-drug resistant strains of TB have already been reported from our nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. And where multi-drug resistant TB has been around for a decade or more, and has not been treated, it is completely predictable that extensively drug resistant TB – that is, resistance to the five main classes of drugs used to treat TB – will occur,” Professor Britton says.
Click here to find out more about the tuberculosis research at the Centenary Institute.