Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacterium spreads from person to person through the air. One-third of the world’s population is infected with the TB bacterium, but only 5 to 10 percent of those infected become sick or contagious.

To date, efforts to develop effective treatments against TB have been hindered by an inability to precisely and rapidly measure the efficacy of TB therapies. Current methods, based on sputum cultures, are difficult to perform and generate imprecise clinical endpoints, contributing to the length and cost of clinical trials. 

Catalysis’ biomarker identification initiative is designed to have major global public health applications. In 2009, Catalysis received a $5 million, three-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to discover new TB biomarkers that can be used to develop diagnostic tests for use in improving disease and therapy monitoring and as aids in developing more effective TB treatments.

Its research efforts will focus on collecting and analyzing a comprehensive set of samples from TB patients in endemic areas. Scientists will use these samples to identify and apply biomarkers for use in next-generation “bacterial load” diagnostic assays, analogous to HIV viral load assays so effectively used in managing Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) patients. These “bacterial load” assays, which measure the amount of bacteria in the body, could also lead to a more rapid, precise and efficient approach to developing effective TB drugs by providing a better indication of a patient’s response to treatment.

Tuberculosis: A Global Epidemic

Progress is being made, but TB is still one of the leading causes of death from an infectious disease worldwide, and a major killer of people living with HIV/AIDS. About 1.8 million people died from TB in 2007, including 456,000 people living with HIV. Ninety percent of all cases and deaths occur in developing countries. In addition to these direct costs, the indirect economic impact of TB in developing countries is also huge. It is estimated that high-burden countries in Asia suffer from productivity loss due to TB of 4 to 7 percent of GDP per year. [Source: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website]

TB/HIV Co-infected Individuals, Emergence of Drug Resistant TB Strains and Other Challenges to Eradicating TB Disease

Complete eradication of TB disease is the ultimate goal of the World Health Organization and other organizations working on improved diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines against TB. For this goal to be achieved there is a pressing need for appropriate diagnostics to inform treatment programs for special at-risk populations that must be managed alongside treatment of typical TB patients. Examples of these populations include individuals co-infected with both TB and HIV; pediatric populations, and those individuals infected with one of the newly emerging strains of drug-resistant TB. Catalysis hopes to aid this global effort with future projects aimed at developing improved diagnostics to address these special at-risk populations.