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Million dollar lab will fast track new weapons in the war on TB

A $1.2 million high-containment laboratory opening today in Sydney will allow researchers to double their efforts to understand and fight back against TB, a bacterium that lives inside two billion people worldwide and kills three people every minute.“We will use the new laboratory to develop a deep understanding of how the bacterium infects us and so successfully hides from our immune defences for decades.

We’re working to understand why some people are more susceptible. And we’re applying all that we learn to develop new ways to fight TB – potential new drugs to treat TB, new vaccines to protect us all from this scourge, and better public health interventions,” says Dr Bernadette Saunders, the researcher responsible for the lab at Sydney’s Centenary Institute at the University of Sydney.

This Saturday marks 130 years since the discovery of the cause of TB. That discovery enabled developed countries to successfully push back against TB in the West with massive public health, screening and vaccine programs.

In 1882 TB was the leading cause of death in Australia – twenty times deadlier per capita than today’s road toll and equivalent to all cancer deaths today. But TB never really went away. And today there’s a deadly new trend emerging – drug resistant strains.

“Some of the drug resistant strains of TB are frightening,” says Dr Saunders. “And currently we don’t know if someone has got a resistant strain until the initial treatment fails. It can take many months to treat.”

“If we could quickly and cheaply figure out what’s different about the drug resistant strains then clinicians around the world would be able to identify a problem strain within hours of a patient’s admission to hospital – a process that takes weeks or months today.”

“Our work at Centenary involves some pretty nasty strains – we’re in full
biocontainment suits and the entire lab is sealed with airlocks,” says Dr Saunders.

“A major bottleneck in our past research has been to actually find time and space in our existing lab. “The new lab allows us to do more by having up to eight researchers safely working with these strains, using technology they haven’t had access to before,” she says.

The laboratory’s construction was two-thirds funded by a grant from the Australian government, with the rest funded by the NSW State government via Sydney Local Health.

One of the new technologies researchers will use in the high-containment lab is a sorter that allows researchers to quickly identify cells infected with TB, rather than having to first grow up the bacteria. “A job that used to take three weeks now takes ten minutes,” says Dr Saunders.

“This is the biggest TB lab of its kind in Australia,” Centenary’s TB research head, Professor Warwick Britton, says, “The ifference between what we could do before and what we can do now is like night and day.”

The projects being conducted in the new lab will be funded by the University of Sydney, the UK’s Wellcome Trust, NHMRC and others.

With drug-resistant TB strains reported in Papua New Guinea and the Asia-Pacific region, there are significant time pressures on progressing TB research.

“With the potential social and economic costs of antibiotic resistant TB strains growing worldwide, it is vital we move forward as fast as we can, on as many fronts as we can,” says Professor Mathew Vadas, the Director of the Centenary Institute, “This new lab is a new weapon in the arsenal.”

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Read more posts on the Centenary blog at http://www.centenarynews.org.au.

Click here to download a PDF of the complete media release and backgrounder.

Learn more about TB.

For interviews contact:

§  Suzie Graham, 0418 683-166,s.graham@centenary.org.au:

§  Niall Byrne, 0417 131-977,niall@scienceinpublic.com.au.

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