Irish researchers make TB breakthrough that could lead to better treatments
It's the scourge that claimed tens of thousands of lives in Ireland in the past - and now Irish researchers have made a major breakthrough in understanding how our immune system responds to tuberculosis (TB).
The team from Trinity College Dublin and St James's Hospital believes its findings open up the possibility of being able to design more effective vaccines and personalised therapies.
Dr Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, lead author on the study, which has just been published in the journal 'Immunity', was struck by how different people all seemed to respond differently to the tuberculosis bacteria.
TB was a killer before the advent of antibiotics in the 1950s. However, the growing prevalence of multi-drug-resistant TB has left it once again posing a serious threat, and doctors are running out of options in terms of treatments.
Dr Ní Cheallaigh pointed out that even in the Dublin tenements of a hundred years ago, crowded conditions meant that TB was easily spread among communities, yet not everyone who became infected got sick. This is unlike most infectious diseases.
Along with colleagues and senior authors on the paper, Joe Keane, Professor in respiratory medicine, St James's and Professor of immunology Ed Lavelle, Dr Ní Cheallaigh focused on the protein Mal and how it impacts on responses to TB. Mal interested the researchers because about 25pc of Europeans have a different form of the protein and these tended to be more susceptible to getting sick with TB - but up to now it was not clear why.
They discovered Mal is involved in cell signalling in response to Interferon Gamma, a master chemical in our immune response to illness. Producing Interferon Gamma is "like putting a fire-lighter on a fire - it sets off a strong immune response when you have an infection", they said.
The finding is significant because it means that patients with TB, especially difficult-to-treat cases, can benefit from more targeted treatments.