In pursuit of an elusive foe

2 min read

The bacteria that cause tuberculosis are experts at survival, allowing the disease to persist even when faced with the immune system and drugs. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Sarah Fortune is on a mission to figure out why.

December 14, 2015 — Of all the health problems that dominate our thoughts and anxieties, tuberculosis (TB) probably ranks low on the list. But as infectious diseases go, it is a major global threat. Tuberculosis is among the top 15 causes of death worldwide, and it is estimated that a third of the world’s population is carrying the culprit bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb).

“Those global numbers reflect a lot of complexity, some of which is the co-epidemic with HIV/AIDS, which has just been catastrophic,” explains Sarah Fortune, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard Chan School and a leader in TB research. “But that explanation is also too simplistic, and neglects the fact that TB just does not conform to our understanding of infection and cure in the way that many other infectious diseases do.”

Fortune heads up a group that is exploring the complexities of TB. In a bustling laboratory on the eighth floor of the Chan School’s Building 1, her team of 14 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows works across the spectrum of modern science.