Microbiology Team at Colorado State Awarded Grants Totaling $7 Million to Develop Early Tests for Leprosy

A team of nine microbiologists at Colorado State University, led by University Distinguished Professor Patrick Brennan, has been awarded two grants from the National Institutes of Health totaling $7 million to continue research into early tests for leprosy, based on the recently completed genome of the bacterium responsible for the disease.

The Colorado State team is working with four international centers in Katmandu, Nepal; Cebu, Philippines; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Medellin, Colombia, which are some of the areas of the world where the disease is still endemic.

Although almost completely eradicated in the human population in North America, leprosy remains a serious problem in areas of Asia, Africa and South American-particularly India, Brazil, Nepal, and Indonesia–and has been determined to be a re-emerging disease because of the disturbing rise in the number of new cases.

"The problem with leprosy is that we still do not know how it is transmitted from person to person, nor to we know the length of incubation before signs of the disease manifest," said Brennan.

Currently, there are no pre-clinical tests for leprosy – diagnosis is based on physical examination for infected patches on the skin. Thanks to a successful application of multi-drug therapy, however, those diagnosed with leprosy can control the disease.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease for the 19th-century Norwegian scientist who first discovered the bacterial agent, is caused by the Mycobacterium leprae. The disease principally affects nerve, skin and, later, other major organs of the body.

The disease usually begins as a light-colored patch that has no feeling of pain, touch or temperature. The patch can erupt anywhere on the body. Nerves near these patches and at the joints become swollen and, when improperly treated, the damage to nerves can be severe and may lead to deformities of hands, feet and eyes. The deformities occur due to loss of sensation and a break in the communication between nerves and muscles. As the muscles lose control from lack of nerve impulses, they begin to atrophy and become paralyzed.

One of the few basic research programs on leprosy worldwide has been located at Colorado State University since 1980 in the Mycobacterium Research Laboratories founded by Brennan. The laboratories, which also work to a large extent on the related disease of tuberculosis, are part of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology within the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Brennan’s research team at Colorado State contributed to the discovery of the bacterial factors responsible for leprosy and the factors that can be used in an early diagnosis of the disease. For this discovery, Brennan’s team was awarded an earlier grant from the National Institutes of Health.

With this current award, Brennan and colleagues have set a goal of one new diagnostic tool per year of the seven year grant, for early testing for the disease. The team already is applying new tests to leprosy patients in clinical trials in Katmandu, Nepal.

"Early, pre-clinical diagnosis will allow prophylactic drug therapy," Brennan said. "This is another step in our goal of eliminating leprosy from the face of the earth."