Boston Medical Center, Boston University Receives $21 Million Grant

The seven-year NIH grant will be used to improve treatments for tuberculosis.

According to Boston Medical Center (BMC), tuberculosis (TB) kills 1.5 million people worldwide every year. In fact, one-third of the world’s population is infected with the bacteria that causes TB, but many will never develop symptoms. Now, a new study led by BMC researchers is investigating why.

BMC has been awarded a seven-year, $21 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate why some people develop symptoms and some don’t. The grant will allow researchers at BMC, Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), to identify “the biological factors, or biomarkers, that indicate whether a person infected with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis (TB) is likely to develop symptoms of the disease in their lifetime or will be cured by treatment.” The ultimate goal, reps say, is to develop new tools for more effective prevention and treatment of TB.

“There have been strides in reducing TB mortality rates worldwide, but it remains one of the most deadly diseases and disproportionately affects women and individuals in low and middle-income countries,” said Jerrold Ellner, MD, chief of infectious diseases at BMC and professor of medicine at BUSM who will serve as the study’s principal investigator. “Integrating cutting-edge translational approaches in both human and experimental models will help us identify the biomarkers of TB infection and disease and ultimately help us target interventions to prevent TB and develop a shorter-course treatment regimen, which are fundamental to ending the disease.”

According to BMC and BUSM reps, there are treatments currently available, but they can take up to six months to completely kill the bacteria:

Treatment failure happens frequently as people discontinue treatment once symptoms disappear without finishing their entire prescribed dose. However, because the bacteria are not all killed, patients relapse and then need more treatment, which can eventually lead to drug resistance and even death for some individuals.

Ellner and colleagues proposed to test high-risk cohorts of households with active cases of TB and the TB cases themselves in South Korea and Brazil – two areas with high rates of TB – in order to determine risk factors for progression to active TB after infection, and early markers of bacteria being eradicated in response to chemotherapy. They also will investigate if some individuals have an immunity to TB that enables them to remain asymptomatic.

“We are hopeful that this study will generate ground breaking results that, in the long term, could significantly reduce the number of individuals worldwide who develop TB and lead to lower mortality rates from this infectious disease,” Ellner said.