Internationally Known Colorado State University Tuberculosis Researchers Receive Five Grants to Further Tests, Treatments

Colorado State University tuberculosis researchers recently received five Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grants. The projects, which total about $3.65 million, enable researchers to develop everything from models that better mimic the impact of tuberculosis infection in humans to tuberculosis-detecting tests that can be used in countries with few resources.

According to the World Health Organization, one-third of the world’s population is infected with tuberculosis, and an estimated 1.7 million people die each year of the disease. Strains of drug-resistant tuberculosis continue to evolve and emerge in countries around the world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major funding source for tuberculosis research and the foundation’s grant process is highly competitive.

The grants will fund the following research projects:
– A $680,000 grant funds a project overseen by researcher Karen Dobos. Dobos will work on initial steps to develop a cheap, fast, simple and specific test for tuberculosis. Cells that are infected with the bacteria that causes tuberculosis produce products that the cell sequesters and spits out within small, coated packets. Those products, or biomarkers, are in the urine, saliva and serum of infected people. Developing a test that specifically flags those biomarkers would help doctors better identify active infections of TB, especially in poor countries where the standard TB test, a skin test, has been used since the 1940s and does not identify whether the patient has active TB or simply has had exposure or was vaccinated in the past. This project also includes CSU researcher Nicole Kruh-Garcia, University of Notre Dame researcher Jeff Schorey, and University of California-San Francisco researchers Luke Davis and Payam Nahid.

– An additional $600,000 grant to researcher John Belisle further identifies molecules that signal a TB infection in the urine, saliva or serum that could be used to diagnose TB strains. The aim of both Dobos and Belisle’s projects, which will work together, is to demonstrate whether these bodily fluids would provide a scientifically sound method of diagnosis and could be further developed into products that could be tested in clinical trials. This project also includes CSU researchers Mary Ann DeGroote, Sebabrata Mahapatra and Ann Hess.

– A third grant also will further develop the strategy of using urine, serum or saliva for a field test. This $486,000 grant will investigate DNA-like nucleic acid molecules for their ability to signal the presence of products produced by the bacteria that causes tuberculosis in body fluids as a potential diagnostic tool. CSU researcher Delphi Chatterjee will collaborate in this project, which is overseen by Daniel Feldheim, a researcher at University of Colorado. Other CSU researchers include Prithwiraj De and Anita Amin.

– A $1.2 million grant to develop a laboratory model that better mimics how human lungs respond to infection with the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. The project, led by Anne Lenaerts, will particularly target persisting strains of tuberculosis bacteria, which are the most difficult to treat. Developing a model that is truer to real situations will then be used to test new drugs treatments for tuberculosis. This project includes CSU researcher Randall Basaraba, Mercedes Juarrero and Mike Lyons as well as University of Colorado geneticist Martin Voskuil.

– A $1 million grant to further compare laboratory models for realistic responses of a host with TB infection. Dean Crick, the researcher overseeing the project, says that the bacteria that causes tuberculosis doesn’t respond the same in a test tube as it does in a host. This project will help look at the cell chemistry of lung tissue responding to the bacteria in a more realistic environment. Currently most studies that look at the bacteria’s cell chemistry do not also evaluate lung tissue response. The research team on this project also includes CSU researchers Belisle, Lenaerts, Chatterjee and Michael McNeil. In addition, Joanne Flynn from the University of Pittsburgh also is involved.

"The fact that five grants were given to Colorado State researchers in a short period of time is a testament to how well established and respected the tuberculosis research program is at Colorado State,” said Gregg Dean, head of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology. “It speaks to the talent and capability of this program, and is evidence that the program has made significant contributions to human health.”

The three grants focusing on developing a urine, serum or saliva test were funded through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health program, an initiative which seeks to overcome persistent bottlenecks in creating new tools that can radically improve health in the developing world. These grants, given as part of the February Biomarkers for the Diagnosis of Tuberculosis, are specifically geared to fund groundbreaking research into tuberculosis biomarkers to develop a low-cost, simple to use tool that can quickly and accurately diagnose tuberculosis in developing countries.

“There is an urgent need to break through barriers in biomarker research in order to develop a highly-sensitive point-of-care diagnostic to improve identification of active TB cases,” said Chris Wilson, director of Global Health Discovery and Translational Sciences at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We hope these innovative ideas lead to effective and affordable tuberculosis diagnostics that can make an impact on one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases.”

The other two grants were awarded as supplemental grants through a separate funding process, also as a part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. The Global Health Program harnesses advances in science and technology to save lives in poor countries. The program focuses on health problems that have a major impact in developing countries but get too little attention and funding. The grants awarded to Colorado State invest in research and development of new interventions, such as vaccines, drugs and diagnostics.