Search for new tuberculosis drugs outlined

3 min read

Promising candidate described at HIGH/Broad symposium

A new drug candidate that attacks the cell walls of tuberculosis bacteria offers a promising alternative in the fight against a disease that has been resurgent in the global age of AIDS, according to findings highlighted by a key researcher Friday (June 12) at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.

Stewart Cole, director of the Global Health Institute at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, described the pursuit of new TB drugs that led to the discovery of the compound’s anti-tuberculosis properties. Cole heads the New Medicines for Tuberculosis Project, based at the Global Health Institute on the shores of Lake Geneva, not far from the site of a former tuberculosis sanitarium.

Cole said the drug, one of a class of compounds called nitro-benzothiazinones, has successfully killed tuberculosis bacteria in lab and mouse tests and is ready for human trials. Importantly, the drug, called BTZ043, is equally effective against multi-drug-resistant and extensively drug-resistant strains. The rise of drug-resistant strains of the disease have been a cause of worry for global health officials, who are concerned that future physicians may be powerless against drug-resistant TB strains.

Cole was the keynote speaker at a daylong symposium that aimed to foster cooperation and collaboration among scientists studying tuberculosis and the disease it has become closely associated with in recent decades — HIV. The event, “The Third Annual New England TB Symposium,” was sponsored by the Harvard Initiative for Global Health and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and drew nearly 200 participants to the Broad. The symposium featured talks on more than a dozen different topics, including new work on the biology of the tuberculosis bacteria, drug resistance, and the status of the disease in hard-hit South Africa.

The symposium was introduced by Bruce Walker, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the Ragon Institute, which is dedicated to finding an AIDS vaccine. Walker, who has done pioneering work on AIDS in South Africa, one of the world’s hardest-hit countries, said the symposium was just the sort of event needed to foster collaboration between those working on TB and HIV.

Walker, who began working on HIV in South Africa 10 years ago, secured funding for a research laboratory based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. As researchers at the lab have focused on the raging HIV epidemic in South Africa’s poor KwaZulu-Natal province, they have been overwhelmed by the emerging TB epidemic.

When someone becomes infected with HIV, the virus attacks their immune system. As their body’s defenses decline, opportunistic infections set in. Tuberculosis has become one of the most common infections that have become associated with HIV and the AIDS it causes. Walker said that the association between the two diseases is so strong in South Africa that 70 percent of TB patients are also infected with HIV, while 30 percent of all those infected with HIV are also infected with TB.

Walker said that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of KwaZulu-Natal are collaborating on a new research institute to focus on the twin epidemics of TB and HIV. Construction on the facility will break ground in August.