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New laboratory will fast track weapons against TB


21 March 2012

Professor Warwick Britton and Dr Bernadette Saunders with some of the equipment in the new $1.2m TB lab. [Image: Centenary Institute/Katherine Finch]
Professor Warwick Britton and Dr Bernadette Saunders with some of the equipment in the new $1.2m TB lab. [Image: Centenary Institute/Katherine Finch]

A $1.2 million biosecurity laboratory which opened in Sydney this week will allow researchers to double their efforts to understand and combat tuberculosis.

"We will use the new laboratory to develop a deep understanding of how the tuberculosis bacterium infects us and so successfully hides from our immune defences for decades," said Dr Bernadette Saunders, from Sydney's Centenary Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Sydney.

The tuberculosis bacterium lives inside two billion people worldwide and kills an estimated three people every minute.

"We're working to understand why some people are more susceptible," said Dr Saunders, the researcher responsible for the high-containment laboratory.

"We're applying all that we learn to develop new ways to fight TB - potential new drugs to treat TB, new vaccines to protect us from this scourge, and better public health interventions."

This Saturday marks 130 years since the discovery of the cause of TB. That discovery enabled developed countries to successfully push back against TB with massive public health, screening and vaccine programs. But TB never really went away and deadly, drug resistant strains are emerging.

"Some of the drug resistant strains of TB are frightening," said Dr Saunders. "We don't know if someone has a resistant strain until the initial treatment fails."

"If we could quickly and cheaply figure out what's different about the drug resistant strains then clinicians around the world could identify a problem strain within hours of a patient's admission to hospital - a process that takes weeks or months today."

The laboratory's construction was two-thirds funded by a grant from the Australian government, with the rest funded by the NSW State government via Sydney Local Health.

"This is the biggest TB lab of its kind in Australia," Centenary's TB research head, Professor Warwick Britton, says, "The difference between what we could do before and what we can do now is like night and day."

The projects conducted in the new lab will be funded by the University of Sydney, the UK's Wellcome Trust, NHMRC and others.


Developing successful screening

Researcher Dr Greg Fox, also from the Centenary Institute, University of Sydney is currently fighting TB on another front. He is using a $150,000 grant from an anonymous benefactor to conduct a genetic study of TB patients and their families in Vietnam, a country where 290,000 people have TB and 54,000 die from it every single year.

Why only one in 10 of the two billion people carrying the Mycobacteria tuberculosis bacterium become sick with tuberculosis remains unknown.

"By studying the genetics of those who live in Vietnam we can compare genetic differences between those affected by TB and those who aren't," Dr Fox says, "This may one day allow us to screen those with a high likelihood of being exposed to TB."

Dr Fox's other research project, which will continue until 2014, is part of a $1.3m collaboration between the Centenary and Woolcock Institutes, both at the University of Sydney. They have set up a controlled trial of active screening of a TB patient's family members in eight provinces across Vietnam. Dr Fox's research in this field is also supported by an NHMRC Medical Postgraduate Research Scholarship.


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Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 02 9351 4312, 0403 067 342, verity.leatherdale@sydney.edu.au