17 January 2008

Cross, Magnet Lab awarded $2 million grant to target tuberculosis

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — About 5,000 people die from tuberculosis every day, but no effective new drugs have been developed to combat it in 40 years. Researchers at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University hope to reverse that trend through research made possible by a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The award will make it possible for Tim Cross, the Earl Frieden Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at FSU, and his team to work toward arming drug developers with a map of the proteins on the bacteria's surface that are vital for infection.

Because we don't often see it in the news in the U.S., TB is often overlooked, but it remains one of the globe's most deadly infectious diseases. The bacterial infection primarily attacks the lungs, causing 2 million deaths around the world each year. Many of the world's poor are among these victims, and researchers have raised the alarm about drug-resistant strains of the infection, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, now account for almost one in five new TB cases.

Some potential new treatments for TB are already being researched, said Cross, who also directs the magnet lab's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance program, but there's no knowing if those treatments will survive clinical trials.

"Trying to treat so much of the world with the same pharmaceuticals is one of the best ways to develop more resistance to treatment, so it's important to come at this from as many angles as possible," said Cross.

"We've done a preliminary study that shows our work is viable, and we have a lot of preliminary data," said Cross of the research plan, expected to take five years to execute. His team, collaborating with the University of Kansas, the University of Alabama and Case Western Reserve University, will use the lab's sophisticated 900 megahertz magnet, as well as other resources, to conduct its research.

Cross thinks the eventual development of a new family of TB drugs could attack the disease in a new and more effective way. He explained that a specific set of proteins appears to be important to TB's ability to attack the body. His team will identify the "target" proteins that allow bacteria to infect lung tissue. When a drug binds to one of these proteins, it can render the protein ineffective, shutting down its ability to do harm.

"We ought to be able to solve the molecular structure of these drug targets," he said. "If you know the shape of the protein, then you can design a drug that can bind to it specifically. Getting detailed information about the correct drug target makes it far easier for the pharmaceutical companies to develop safer, more effective treatment."

"There has been a lot of interest in our proposal," Cross said, adding, "The quality of the graduate students here at FSU made the difference for us. Without a quality research team like this one, this project goes nowhere and our chance of funding work this important would have been zero."