Researchers seek answers to combat TB epidemic

Most Americans think of tuberculosis as a disease of the past, but with HIV and drug-resistant strains fueling epidemics in India and Africa, TB kills someone every six seconds across the world.

Now University of Florida and Indian scientists suspect they are on the path to solving a piece of the puzzle. The researchers are studying a protective protein they believe may boost bacteria-battling defenses, protecting against TB and giving infected patients an easier recovery.

Alcohol consumption likely reduces the amount of this protective protein, called heme oxygenase 1, weakening the body's defenses against TB, said Veena Antony, M.D., a UF professor of pulmonary medicine and division chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine for the College of Medicine. The researchers hope to pinpoint the role of alcoholism in the global epidemic by studying a population of HIV- and tuberculosis-infected patients in India. The researchers are collecting data for the National Institutes of Health-funded project and hope to have answers within two to three years, Antony said.

The epidemic may be more prevalent in resource-poor countries like India right now, but with immigrants unknowingly carrying bacteria that cause TB into the United States each year, this crisis could spread to American soil if left untended, Antony warns.

"We cannot build walls high enough to keep these organisms out," she said. "In the U.S., we cannot afford to grow complacent about TB. This is a disease that appears in many forms, many guises. We will never be able to eradicate it from the U.S. unless we eradicate it from the world."

The increasing number of multidrug-resistant strains of TB makes the disease even more troublesome, Antony says. The only currently approved treatment for TB requires patients to go to a clinic every day for up to nine months, and people often do not complete the full course of therapy, breeding new bacteria that are immune to the drugs

Contact: April Frawley Birdwell
University of Florida

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