Searching rural China for clues to stop an ancient and still deadly disease
A Sydney researcher is seeking to improve treatment of TB by tracking resistance to it among thousands of rural Chinese people with the help of a $750,000 NHMRC grant.
We still don’t know why only one in ten of the two billion people carrying the Mycobacteria tuberculosis bacterium become sick with tuberculosis (TB). But the disease kills more than one million people worldwide every year — three every minute.
Dr Magda Ellis of the Centenary Institute is already using her grant to search the highways and byways —and genomes— of rural China to find genetic clues that may one day unravel this mystery and lead to new targets for TB treatments or vaccines.
Magda has previously done fieldwork across China as a PhD student looking at soil-borne diseases. As part of her later work with the Wellcome Trust, Magda visited Ningxia, an autonomous region of China, where her latest study is being conducted.
“I was able to see the impact that TB has, particularly in the developing world where treatment is more difficult,” Magda says.
China generates more than 1.5 million new TB cases every year, with 54,000 people dying.
“Now I’m tapping into my collaborative links with China to analyse thousands of genetic samples for the biggest genome-wide study of TB patients ever conducted in Asia,” Magda says.
Magda and her Chinese colleagues are coordinating a grassroots campaign to collect samples. They will then analyse each genome to find genetic differences between those infected with TB and those who aren’t.
“When patients who have TB come in from the farms and villages to receive TB treatment, they are asked to bring a (healthy) friend from home the next time they come in,” she says, “By comparing thousands of TB patients and healthy people from the same geographic region and similar Chinese heritage, there’s more chance we can find the mutations that play a role increasing the likelihood of getting TB.”
The Chinese National Human Genome Centre in Shanghai is using the latest genome technologies to look at millions of variations in each person’s genome.
The announcement of Magda’s grant is timely given that World TB Day is coming up on March 24.
On that day 130 years ago, Dr Robert Koch announced he had discovered the cause of TB: a bacterium that infects the lungs where it grows slowly and spreads via the air when it’s coughed out.
Centenary’s TB research head, Professor Warwick Britton, says the findings from Magda’s study could be applicable across Centenary’s entire portfolio of TB research.
“We’re working to develop a deep understanding of how the parasite infects us and so successfully hides from our immune defences for decades. We’re working to understand why some people are more susceptible. We’re working on management of infected people to stop the spread. And we’re applying all that we learn to develop new ways to fight TB — potential new drugs to treat TB and new vaccines to protect us all from this scourge.”
“Winning this grant is a significant achievement for a young researcher,” says Professor Mathew Vadas, the Director of the Centenary Institute. “Finding genes that make people more, or less, vulnerable to TB will be a huge step forward in the fight against this ancient curse.”
Magda’s collaborators include her former supervisor, Professor Adrian Hill from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in the UK, and her Chinese colleague, Dr Yurong Yang of Queensland Institute of Medical Research and Ningxia Medical University. The project’s funding comes from an NHMRC grant: APP ID 1025166.
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