8 October 2009

Researcher receives major grant for research targeting Tuberculosis

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida State University researcher has received a major research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to screen small molecules that could be potential drug targets in the fight against tuberculosis, a common and deadly infectious disease that kills nearly 2 million people worldwide each year.

Timothy A. Cross, the Earl Frieden Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State and director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) program at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, has received $3.1 million to advance his research, which will take place predominantly at the magnet lab. The funds are part of a larger NIH grant – $9 million – that was awarded to a group of collaborating institutions that also includes the University of Alabama; the Burnham Institute; the University of California, San Diego; and Harvard University. Cross heads up that collaborative effort.

It has been 40 years since the development of new drugs to treat TB, a contagious bacterial infection that primarily attacks the lungs. And according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, one in five new cases of TB is drug-resistant. Finding molecules that can effectively bind to and deactivate tuberculosis proteins is an important step toward the eventual development of drugs to combat the disease.

"These proteins are essential to the life of the bug," Cross said. "Knock out just one of them and the bug dies."

Tuberculosis is a formidable opponent. According to the World Health Organization, more than 2 billion people – almost one-third of the world's population – are infected with the microbes that cause the diseases. In 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 9.27 million new cases; that same year, 1.77 million people died of TB. The spread of HIV has led to millions of new TB infections, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, making TB the leading cause of death for people infected with HIV/AIDS.

Cross and his colleagues have been studying TB for about seven years. Most of that time has been spent building up the technology and methodology to get to this point, and in the next five years, researchers may be able to isolate as many as five to 10 potential drug targets using the NMR facilities at the magnet lab. NMR science can provide scientists with intimate portraits of a protein's structure and clues to its function.

Although the work is still basic research, years away from what is commonly referred to as the "drug discovery stage," it lays the foundation, Cross said, for that step.

"The combination of scientific skills in (Florida State's) Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the magnet's lab's second-to-none technology development positions this multi-institutional effort to make significant advances in TB research," he said.

Significantly, the team of young scientists (many of them Florida State University graduate students) will conduct much of the research through their doctoral education program.

"The high quality of the graduate students here at FSU, and the ability of our staff and faculty to teach, train and pass along knowledge during this research process, leads to not only an expanded body of knowledge for this disease and the tools and technology to further advance such research, but will also lead to the development of the next generation of faculty and scientists for our state and country," Cross said.