Antibodies are one of the body’s first lines of defense against infection, but their role in tuberculosis (TB) has gone largely unstudied. Now, by harnessing a unique technology for rapidly analyzing human antibodies, a team of researchers led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard University has uncovered key differences in antibodies isolated from different groups of TB patients—findings that could spur new diagnostic tools and open a new scientific path towards an effective TB vaccine.
“Our work shatters some long-standing paradigms on TB,” explains co-senior author Sarah Fortune, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard Chan School and director of TB research at the Ragon Institute. “That means we’ll need to think differently about how the body develops natural immunity to the infection and how effective vaccines should be engineered.”
About a third of the world’s population carries the bacteria that cause TB, known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis or Mtb. In 2014, nearly 10 million people worldwide became newly infected with Mtb and 1.5 million died. Although there are drugs that can treat the infection, drug-resistance is a pervasive problem and the most potent tool for long-term TB control—a vaccine—remains an elusive goal.
Fortune and her colleagues set out to answer a couple simple questions about antibodies in TB: First, are they different in people who are actively sick with TB versus those who can control the infection?