Belisle said this discovery already has triggered a shift in developing drugs to fight TB, an infectious disease that spawns 8 million new cases and causes 3 million deaths annually, mostly in developing countries. Antibiotics currently used to treat TB manage to prevent growth of the bacteria, but the long-term drug treatments needed to cure the disease give the organism time to mutate into new, resistant forms. Making treatment even more difficult is the fact that many TB sufferers stop taking antibiotics before the bacteria is eliminated.
"This is a breakthrough because it offers a novel drug target for tuberculosis," Belisle said. "Based on this finding, we can create new drugs that inhibit the enzymatic reactions responsible for keeping the cell wall intact, which will result in the death of the TB bacteria."
Colorado State's Mycobacteria Research Laboratory, led by Patrick Brennan, is one of a few labs worlwide devoted to studying all aspects of tuberculosis and leprosy. The lab was instrumental in creating a model of the TB bacterium's cell wall and helped defined which parts are responsible for interacting with normal human cells and causing the disease.
Building on this model, the lab has focused on three main areas: developing new drug treatments against TB, creating vaccines that prevent TB from developing, and improving tests that detect the disease at an earlier stage.