Researchers working toward breakthrough TB treatment

Researchers from the Imperial College London and Stanford University recently announced a breakthrough in tuberculosis treatment in which the human immune system is manipulated to strengthen its ability to fight the disease.

TB is caused by a lung infection of the bacterium Mycobaterium tuberculosis. TB infections are persistent because they become lodged in macrophages, which are cells in the immune system that typically fight invading microorganisms.

TB attaches to and disarms macrophages using unusual sugars that are on the surface of the mycobacteria. Researchers are now working to develop small molecule drugs that are able to latch onto the same areas of macrophages and stave off TB infections.

The small molecule drugs could create a barrier that prevents mycobacteria from attaching to the macrophages. The small molecule drugs also could transport other drugs that kill the mycobacteria, or change the behavior of macrophages so they destroy the bacteria.

"TB is hard to fight effectively because it can hide inside the cells of the immune system that should be able to destroy it," Imperial College London Professor Kurt Drickamer said. "We were surprised to find that there is an extensive interaction between the macrophage and one particular type of molecule on the surface of the mycobacteria. The nature of the interaction gives us hope that we can make simple molecules that block the ability of the mycobacteria to subvert the macrophages."

In addition, breakthroughs in the manipulation of macrophages could be used to develop better vaccines against other conditions, including HIV.