Research underway at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) in Cairns and Townsville aims to save millions of lives currently threatened by tuberculosis (TB).
“Tuberculosis is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, and it’s a significant health burden for people in the tropics. According to the World Health Organization, TB caused 1.8 million deaths in 2015,” AITHM researcher Andreas Kupz said.
Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria that infect the lungs. It spreads when bacteria travel through the air from one person coughing, sneezing, or speaking, and are inhaled by another individual. It is estimated that TB costs the global economy $1 billion a day, and there are some strains of TB that are not treatable with medication.
New research being led by Dr Kupz, who is based at James Cook University in Cairns, focuses on understanding particular aspects of the immune response to TB, to generate new and better vaccines.
“Developing new and effective TB vaccines is crucial,” Dr Kupz said. “The only licensed anti-TB vaccine, Bacille Calmette–Guérin (BCG), is almost 100 years old, and - although it protects against childhood versions of TB - it does not prevent adult pulmonary TB.”
This new research, being undertaken at AITHM’s new PC3 (Physical Containment level 3) facility at James Cook University in Townsville, builds on existing work and focuses on two streams of investigation.
“The first stream will create and use genetically manipulated, live BCG bacteria, to design a vaccine strain that evokes superior immune responses,” Dr Kupz said.
“This pre-clinical trial will assess vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing a dormant TB infection from reactivating. The research challenges the vaccines to prevent TB-causing bacteria from reactivating, and spreading to various organs.”
In future trials Dr Kupz also hopes to assess the effectiveness of these vaccine strains preventing infection and disease.
The second stream of research will investigate how the vaccine is administered.
“Unlike other organs, the lungs’ immune cells often fail to provide a long-lasting and effective response. TB is generally contracted via inhalation, and our new vaccine strategy is to replicate the natural infection process,” Dr Kupz said.
“Preliminary investigation indicates that by replicating the infection process and administering vaccines by inhalation, we can boost the protective response of the lungs’ immune cells.”
The availability of a new and effective TB vaccine would be a tremendous advancement for public health worldwide.
“Our neighbouring countries are not well positioned to respond to infectious diseases, but Australia does have the capacity, and I think an obligation, to take on this task,” Dr Kupz said.
“AITHM’s research focus is on improving health security, to help our region and protect Australia from the disease threats associated with increasing cross-border travel.”