Scientists claimed a significant breakthrough today in their research into the spread of tuberculosis.
TB bacteria accumulate “fat” that may help them to survive passing from one person to another and boost their resistance to drugs, found the team of microbiologists from the University of Leicester and University of London.
The finding could challenge the established view that TB bacteria coughed up in sputum by infected individuals multiply rapidly.
The team discovered that the number of bacteria may not grow. Instead, the bacteria survive in large amounts by accumulating fatty deposits and effectively “shutting down” to make the journey from one person to another.
Lead investigator Mike Barer, Professor of Clinical Microbiology in the Department of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation at England's University of Leicester, said: “Strenuous efforts are being made to reduce the global burden of tuberculosis, a disease which kills four people every minute.
“Our success so far has been limited for many reasons; one of these is our failure to control the spread of TB from one person to another. Very little is known about this vital part of the bacterium’s life cycle.
“If scientists could understand more about the transmission of TB between people, they might identify new therapeutic and preventative targets.”
The new discovery is said to shed light on “persister bacteria” in TB – a mysterious population thought to be the reason why TB patients must be treated for at least six months.
Prof Barer said: “These surprising findings have opened the door for us to develop new ways to stop TB from spreading and to treat it more effectively.
“We hope that our new ability to monitor these sleepy and resistant bacteria in sputum will enable us to treat the disease more quickly.
“This work has taken more than 10 years to come to fruition and has taken dedicated work from the teams in Leicester and London. I am particularly delighted for my team in Leicester, who fought long and hard to bring this story together.”
The study has been funded principally by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and The Wellcome Trust and its findings will be published today in the Journal, Public Library of Science Medicine.