Danger lurking in the lungs

Swiss researchers in a high security laboratory are looking for a treatment for highly contagious tuberculosis. Many of today’s strains of tuberculosis are now resistant to common antibiotics.

An old disease is back in a new guise: tuberculosis. At one time it was thought that, thanks to modern antibiotics, the disease was by and large contained, at least in the western world. But precisely because of the frequent use of antibiotics, it has now developed multiple resistances.

This can be seen in the case of a young man in Basel who, in 2010, suffered from an aggressive form of tuberculosis after a stay in Tibet. It was resistant to all known antibiotics. A new therapy lasting over two years failed; the bacteria with which the patient was infected also became resistant to the new drug. A further therapy proved to be equally unsuccessful. Finally, doctors had to remove part of the patient's lungs and it was not until 2015 that he was finally given the all-clear.

The microbiologist Sébastien Gagneux from the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute and the University of Basel is investigating resistance formation in tuberculosis in a biosafety laboratory.

There, he subjects tuberculosis strains from all over the world with various antibiotics and tracks the bacteria's evolution and development of resistance. "The goal is to be able to identify the strains that have the highest potential to develop multiple resistances," says Gagneux. With this knowledge, researchers can then elaborate strategies for treatment. There is much work to be done - tuberculosis is the most common infectious disease worldwide. There are 10 million new cases every year, 1.8 million of which are deadly.

Sébastien Gagneux, sebastien.gagneux(at)swisstph.ch, +41 61 284 83 69 or
Dr. Sonia Borrell, sonia.borrell(at)swisstph.ch, +41 61 284 83 68


Department program of SNF