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CSU tuberculosis research team is largest in U.S. with 170 contributors

Due in part to Colorado State University and the state of Colorado’s unique history with the disease, CSU is currently home to the largest tuberculosis research group in the country.

The Mycobacteria Research Laboratories, CSU’s TB research team, were founded about 25 years ago by Dr. Patrick J. Brennan. Currently, 170 scientists and students are involved with MRL. 

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Colorado was known as the “World’s Sanatorium” in the early 1900s due to the fact that many TB patients came in groups in search of help from sunshine and clean, dry air. In 1925, the Health Committee of the City Club of Denver said that about 60 percent of Colorado’s population had originally come to the state to receive remedies for TB. Today, about 70 new cases of active TB appear in Colorado each year.

From the 1900s to the early 2000s, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death due to infectious disease in the United States. Globally, about 1.4 million people a year die from TB, and about 2 billion people may be infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, according to the World Health Organization. WHO statistics from 2016 show that over 95% of TB deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.

TB is an infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis that mainly affects the lungs. It was almost wiped out in the 1950s with the creation of antibiotics, but infections began increasing in 1985 due to HIV, which weakens a person’s immune system. It can be spread to others through tiny droplets released into the air from coughing or sneezing.

“Many patients came to the National Jewish Health hospital in Denver,” said Associate Professor Director and Mycobacteria Researcher Mary Jackson. “TB research started from this because they sent people to sanitations because they believed that exposing people to fresh air and mountains was good for them. For this reason, many people in the U.S. were sent to Colorado.”

CSU conducts basic scientific research into the bacterium that causes TB, and is devoted to finding cheap, easy and accurate ways to test for and vaccinate TB. Some of the drugs and vaccines that have been tested at CSU for TB are now in clinical trials in South Africa.

“We also test other diseases caused by the same bacteria,” Jackson said. “TB is the biggest because it’s the most deadly so we receive more money to work on it. However, even though they are considered neglected diseases, we also research leprosy and Buruli since there are increasing cases. Buruli is big in Africa and Australia.”

CSU is in collaboration with scientists in South Africa to test for biomarker characteristics in organisms that are measured for infections and disease, Jackson said.

CSU also collaborates with Brazil, Europe, China, and the Phillipines on TB and other mycobacterial disease research.

“We have an interesting research program in Brazil,” Jackson said. “We have someone from CSU spending 6 months there to do diagnostic tests on school children for leprosy.”

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Along with the research, CSU also houses a program that helps to test anti-tuberculosis compounds for other laboratories around the world.

The CSU research team recently found new molecules and they are currently researching how they affect TB and other diseases. They are also studying the chromosomes of organisms infected with the bacteria.

“The chromosomes are sometimes very closely related, while others aren’t,” Jackson said. “We find matches for the chromosomes all over the world, in the UK, New Zealand, etc. What we aren’t sure of is whether it’s spreading and whether it’s pathogenic or not.”

The CSU veterinary program has in the past focused on eliminating TB from dairy cattle, since infected animals can transmit TB to people through unpasteurized and raw milk. Although the program not currently researching infected cattle, it is known that there are infected goats in the foothills with TB.

“We always do an outreach every year since World TB Day is on March 24, the day the bacteria was discovered in 1882,” Jackson said. “We organize about 80 students from high schools in Fort Collins and Greeley, and they spend about half a day here. We set up different stations for students; for example, there was one where students could see how the bacteria was spread when someone coughs. We also set up international conferences and workshops for the regular research business, mainly for professionals.”

The Mycobacteria research group receives funding from the National Institute of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which brings in about $9 million for research per year.

Collegian Reporter Mackenzie Eldred can be reached at news@collegian.com or on twitter @KenzieEldred.

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