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Taking a closer look at resistance to tuberculosis bacteria

Though tuberculosis can be cured today, new resistant strains of the bacteria are becoming a growing problem in the medical world. Biologist Annemarie Meijer and her colleagues are studying resistance to this disease. Their research is already yielding several interesting clues that could help the development of a new generation of drugs. We have three questions for her.

What is tuberculosis?

‘Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that attacks the lungs. It’s caused by Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, a species of bacteria that is carried by about a third of the world’s population. Most people carrying the bacteria don’t notice a thing until their immune system is weakened. When that happens they develop “open TB” and become quite sick. The disease still occurs in rare instances in the Netherlands, but this disease can be easily treated with antibiotics. We are more worried about drug-resistant strains of the tuberculosis bacteria, which are increasing in number. These new strains don’t respond to treatment with antibiotics and can therefore prove fatal.’

What are you trying to find out?

‘We want to know how our cells develop resistance to tuberculosis. We are launching a new project on 24 March, World Tuberculosis Day, to find out. The project will be financed by Technology Institute STW, which is part of the NWO. During this new study my group, which is being led by Herman Spaink of the Institute of Biology Leiden, will collaborate with a team from the LUMC led by Professor Tom Ottenhof. Our focus is on immune cells, which protect the body from bacteria and other external invaders. The tuberculosis bacteria are somehow capable of incapacitating those immune cells. If we discover how that process works, we can develop a drug to prevent it from happening. If successful, the immune cells should be able, together with antibiotics, to fight off the tuberculosis bacteria.’

Will it be possible to wipe out tuberculosis bacteria?

'Of course our aim is to completely wipe out these bacteria everywhere, but that’s not easy to do. These are complex bacteria that have spent millions of years evolving into a highly elusive disease that is exceptionally difficult to wipe out. Fortunately scientists all over world are focusing on combating this disease. While the focus here in Leiden is on resistance and drugs, many other teams are instead focusing on the development of a complete vaccine for tuberculosis. Unfortunately that doesn’t exist yet.’ 

(26 March 2015)

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