Healthcare Tips

Partnership In Tuberculosis Research Could Lead To Improved Detection And Treatment

June 15, 2017

An investment of S$3 million is being pumped into tuberculosis (TB) research by A*STAR's Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN), bioindustrial group Institut Merieux and its in vitro diagnostics company bioMerieux. The project, which involves setting up a joint laboratory in Biopolis, Singapore aims to investigate and identify novel biomarkers that could allow early identification of individuals at risk of TB disease development and disease reactivation. This could lead to better diagnosis and treatment for the highly contagious disease.

At the shared lab, researchers from SIgN and bioMérieux will study the immune cells in the blood of infected individuals without active TB, and compare them with those in individuals with active TB, as well as non-infected healthy controls. Any change in gene expression and behaviour of the immune cells will then be analysed to identify biomarkers associated with TB infection and/or TB re-activation. This information would be especially pertinent to clinicians and researchers as current tests cannot reliably detect if the individual is at risk of developing the disease. In addition, the identification of predictive biomarkers will also help clinicians accurately assess patients' responses to TB treatment and deal appropriately with those who have developed drug resistance to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium responsible for causing TB. This will lead to early and accurate assessment of the effectiveness of treatment in TB patients.

One of the lead researchers involved in the collaboration is Prof Paola Castagnoli, Scientific Director of SIgN. Said Prof Castagnoli, "The risk of developing active TB is higher in persons with weak immune systems, especially in those infected with HIV, and young children under the age of five. There is an urgent need to understand and find new ways to eradicate the disease - through prediction, early detection and effective treatment - and this timely collaboration seeks to accomplish exactly that." Prof Castagnoli was part of a team of scientists that published findings[1] on the way dendritic cells and macrophages cope with Mycobacterium tuberculosis in 2008.

The co-investigator on the project, Professor Christian Brechot, who is also the Vice President of Institut Mérieux in charge of scientific and medical affairs, said, "We are very pleased with this partnership between Institut Merieux, bioMérieux and SIgN. It reflects the strategy of Institut Mérieux and its companies to establish long-term partnerships with internationally recognised research institutions, in particular in Singapore. The joint laboratory will focus its activities on tuberculosis, as part of Institut Mérieux's research programs, as well as on oncology. We look forward to the success of this important agreement."

Prof Philippe Kourilsky, Chairman of SIgN, said, "Infectious disease is an area that cannot be tackled alone - Singapore has identified infectious diseases as one of its flagship areas of focus for its research efforts and is working closely with its regional and global partners; SIgN already has some meaningful partnerships with several industry players including Cytos and Vivalis. We are excited at this opportunity to partner Institut Mérieux and bioMérieux, which we hope will accelerate the process of discovery and find something of direct impact to the treatment and management of tuberculosis. This collaboration will reinforce SIgN's position as a premier immunology research centre that focuses on addressing the pressing diseases facing Singapore and the region."

Background on tuberculosis

Currently, over two billion people or one third of the world's total population are infected with the bacterium that causes TB, and about one in every 10 of these people will develop active TB in his or her lifetime. According to the World Health Organisation's (WHO) 2009 update on TB, about 1.8 million[2] people died from TB worldwide in 2008, including some 500,000 people infected with HIV. TB is also a lead killer of people with HIV/AIDS, and people who are HIV-positive and infected with TB are 20 to 40 times more likely to develop active TB than people not infected with HIV living in the same country[3]. WHO also released a report in 2009 highlighting the alarming spread of Multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) cases in all the 81 countries it surveyed - the highest rates ever recorded of MDR-TB. The same report also revealed that extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB) was prevalent in 45 countries, a situation that threatened to derail 10 years of progress in TB control and HIV management.

Yunshi Wang
Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore