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New techniques for tuberculosis treatment

About nine million people worldwide contract tuberculosis each year. Research into new treatment for this disease has received fresh stimulus with more efficient techniques and a new understanding of how the tuberculosis bacteria works.

New medication

The tuberculosis bacteria is becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Molecular cell biologist Herman Spaink is therefore seeking new drugs to fight these bacteria. He is researching how the tuberculosis bacteria works and how to stop the disease. Spaink: ‘People with TB suffer from rapid weight loss, which is one of the first symptoms of the disease. Thanks to our research we now know that this is because the bacteria influence a specific gene. This enables the bacteria to disrupt the human metabolism. We want to use medication to protect this specific gene.’


Molecules are the building blocks for new drugs. When molecules are found that could potentially fight tuberculosis they need to be tested. The zebrafish is an ideal model organism for this research. The immune system of the zebrafish responds in the same way to the tuberculosis bacteria as the human immune system does, which makes for a more accurate prediction of whether a drug will work in humans than with other models. Furthermore, the zebrafish has a fast reproductive cycle and its embryos develop rapidly. The most important organs have already formed within 24 hours and the young fish hatch out of the egg within three days. As the young fish, which still look like embryos, are small and transparent, they can easily be studied under a microscope, making it easy to follow the development and progression of tuberculosis.

Two days old larvae of zebrafish © Jürgen Berger and Mahendra Sonawane, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology

Efficient techniques

The purchase of a robot that can inject a large number of zebrafish embryos with the TB bacteria at the same time has given a huge boost to Spaink’s research. Previously the bacteria needed to be manually injected into the zebrafish embryos. This was very labour intensive and thus delayed the part of the research that involved testing new drugs. The automation of the injection process has enabled Spaink’s team to work much faster and more efficiently. Furthermore, robots and automatic recognition of microscopic images have recently made it possible to test the effect of new drugs on zebrafish embryos at an exceedingly rapid rate. Spaink hopes that with these new methods he will soon discover new drugs that work against TB, a disease that affects a third of the world’s population.

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