UTHCT researchers receive almost $1.4 million from NIH to study how a specific protein helps protect people from TB

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler will receive almost $1.4 million over five years from the National Institutes of Health to study how a specific protein helps protect people from tuberculosis.

Peter Barnes, MD, and Buka Samten, MD, both of UTHSCT’s Center for Pulmonary and Infectious Disease Control, will use the $1.4 million from the NIH to study how interferon-gamma is regulated in people with tuberculosis. Interferon-gamma is an important cytokine, a protein produced by the cell, which helps the body fight off infection.

“Interferon-gamma is secreted by one cell and affects other cells. It’s very important in providing defense against many, many pathogens - disease-causing microbes - that live in human cells,” said Dr. Barnes, director of the CPIDC. He and Dr. Samten, an instructor of microbiology and immunology at UTHSCT, are the two co-principal investigators for the NIH grant. Susan Howard, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at UTHSCT, is a co-investigator for the grant.

Some microbes that cause diseases, such as the bacteria that most commonly cause pneumonia, don’t live inside cells. However, the bacteria that cause tuberculosis invade the body and then take up residence inside cells, as do viruses that cause disease.

Dr. Barnes and his team are investigating the mechanisms that control the production of interferon-gamma. Once this process is understood, that knowledge can be used against other diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, Dr. Barnes said. This research will identify the key factors inside the cell that control the production of interferon-gamma.

“We’ve found TB patients have some defects in the cells that produce interferon-gamma. We want to find the mechanism for that. Why do TB patients have this problem?” he said. His team’s research may lead to the development of a better TB vaccine. Vaccines could be designed that protect people with this defect from contracting tuberculosis.

Dr. Barnes and his team depend on data collected from difficult lab experiments that require considerable skill to perform correctly. Fortunately, Dr. Samten is a gifted researcher who is especially good at using state-of-the-art techniques to study factors that control signaling within cells, Dr. Barnes said.

Nine UTHSCT researchers currently are examining various aspects of tuberculosis and how it infects people. For example, Homayoun Shams, Ph.D., an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, is studying some proteins that are promising candidates for inclusion in a new, more effective TB vaccine. Dr. Howard, in addition to her participation in this grant, is studying the tuberculosis bacteria and how it responds when stressed by the body’s immune system.

“Considering that we’re a relatively small institution, we’ve got one of the biggest groups working on TB in the United States,” Dr. Barnes said.

The public may not always understand the science behind basic research into how a particular disease infects people, he said. But research is an amazing process, and scientists never know where their studies may lead.

“Things that you think might not be very helpful end up revolutionizing science,” Dr. Barnes said. For example, the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, that significantly sped up the copying of DNA, was discovered by molecular biologists conducting basic research, he said. PCR transformed the process of identifying DNA sequences, because it quickly copies strands of DNA and produces the large amounts of DNA necessary for analysis.

“Without PCR, we wouldn’t be able to diagnose conditions such as SARS and quantify the amount of HIV in blood, a procedure that is essential to treat HIV,” Dr. Barnes said.

UTHSCT scientists continue to have success in gaining grants to fund studies such as these. In fiscal year 2005, which ended this past August, researchers at the Health Center were awarded 80 new grants and contracts totaling $11.3 million. That is a 26 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

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