Otago scientists identify tuberculosis protein that could be altered to kill TB

By Taroi Black

The University of Otago has made a major breakthrough that could cure tuberculosis quickly.

Though it could still take a few years for a drug to be developed, the scientists expect to use one of TB's own proteins, bd oxidase, to cut a six-month treatment down to four weeks.

It could be the “holy grail” to treat the world’s leading cause of death, Professor Kurt Krause says.

“This would have an enormous global health impact.”

“The holy grail in infectious diseases would be a rapid cure for TB – and the determination of the bd oxidase structure from the bacterium that causes TB is a key first step in exactly that direction.”

Professor Krause and Professor Greg Cook from the University of Otago teamed up with the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Germany to study the protein because “people have a tendency to fall off” during their six-month treatment.

Māori vulnerable

“People who have TB are taking four drugs for six months and it's a lot of pills and you get a lot of side effects and it's really difficult to do.”

The discovery will also benefit livestock because tuberculosis affects animals.

Māori were particularly vulnerable to the disease in the 1930s when the death rates were 10 times more than non-Māori. Today, there are 300 New Zealanders a year who catch the disease. Globally, it kills about 5000 people a day.

Waikato-based nurse officer Siobhan Awhina Uruoma, who has a background in respiratory medicine, is developing a study among whānau Māori from the region about this infectious disease.

The study found 60% of the whānau who participated knew a family member who caught TB.

“When tuberculosis was rife within the community there was little treatment available. I heard that many whānau were still living together and riding it out,” Uruoma says.