Research that could lead to a breakthrough in the fight against human tuberculosis has been awarded funding by an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Tuberculosis (TB) is curable and preventable, yet it remains one the world’s most deadly infectious diseases, killing more than one million people every year.
Thanks to new funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers from the University of Surrey, led by Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics, aim to revolutionise the control of TB by modifying the BCG vaccine and designing a new test for the human form of the disease.
At the moment, countries which employ the BCG vaccination to protect against TB cannot use the cheapest skin test to determine whether someone has caught the disease as it usually gives a positive result whether the person has the infection or has received the vaccine. Instead, an expensive chest X-ray is required to diagnose the infection, which is unsustainable in developing countries where the disease is most common.
Professor McFadden’s team, which includes colleagues from the AHVLA, is seeking to delete some of the antigens in the BCG vaccination to develop a BCG-minus strain lacking immunogenic proteins. They will then replace the existing skin test (which detects all of the antigens TB produces) with one that detects only those proteins eliminated from the BCG-minus strain so that the test only shows a positive result when someone has the infection.
Professor McFadden said: “Utilising our expertise in the field of genetics and proteomics, we hope to identify which genes to knock out from the BCG strain – ensuring that any knock-out genes don’t impact its effectiveness as a vaccine. We will then design an affordable diagnostic. I am delighted that this project was selected to receive a Grand Challenges Explorations grant which will allow us to investigate the feasibility of this approach to help control human tuberculosis.”
If successful, the project will be eligible to apply for a follow-on grant of up to $1m from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations grant initiative.