"The basic assays from our labs go to SmithKline Beecham, and personnel then screen all the compounds in their banks against our assays and their own," Brennan said. "Once we have a match we come back to Ian, who tests it in his lab, looking for efficacy and then making sure there's no toxicity associated with it."
Orme's team will screen the most promising drugs in vitro and in modeling systems, examining pharmacokinetics, safety and other matters.
"There really isn't much to testing that we don't have a hand in," he said. "Our lab's been doing it all, initially funneling a large number of drugs (through testing) and winnowing them down."
Orme's contract calls for testing approximately 10 promising anti-tubercular drugs each year, although he anticipates investigating perhaps twice that number.
Brennan said progress toward finding effective drugs is hampered by economics, since recouping research and development costs will be difficult.
"There isn't much money in tuberculosis drugs," he said. "It's a poor person's disease, found primarily in developing countries." SmithKline Beecham's cooperation reflects their long tradition of antibacterial study, he said.
In a different approach to the tuberculosis threat, Orme heads a 10-person team that develops possible TB vaccines. In addition, since 1992, with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, they have operated a TB vaccine screening program that has examined dozens of experimental vaccines. Orme thinks both drugs and vaccines will be necessary to deal with tuberculosis.
"In the long run we're going to have to deal with tuberculosis by vaccination," Orme said. "In the short term, we're going to have to use drugs."