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Press Release

Press release

TB breakthrough opens way for immunotherapy treatment

18 February 2016

In a second major breakthrough published this week, HRB-funded researchers at St James's Hospital and Trinity College Dublin discover new avenues to treat multi drug-resistant Tuberculosis (TB).

Health Research Board Clinician Scientist, Professor Joe Keane takes up the story.

'This is a game-changer when it comes to new approaches to fighting TB. Instead of using antibiotics, which we have pretty much run out of, this discovery opens the door to use a new immunotherapy approach to improve existing treatments.

My colleague, Dr Laura Gleeson, has discovered that a key change in a special immune system cell in the lung that fights TB, called an alveolar macrophage, can alter its metabolism and make it produce a protein called interleukin-1. This protein in turn makes our immune system much more effective at fighting TB. This is the first in human lung demonstration of this effect, and it opens a wholly new approach to battling the disease.

There are a range of pre-existing drugs, that we know to be safe, and that can change how our immune system operates. Hence, if we can re-purpose some of these drugs to change metabolism, it may help our immune system fight TB.  And because this is not an antibiotic approach, TB cannot go on to develop resistance to this form of attack'.

'Don't you just love it when a plan comes together', says Graham Love, Chief Executive at the Health Research Board. 'In the space of a few days we have two major discoveries by HRB-funded researchers that could completely change the way that we treat TB. Aside from the scientific and medical significance, this illustrates beautifully how the different parts of the HRB's research programmes work together'.

Dr Gleeson is funded through a HRB Health Professional Fellowship, a scheme which allows talented, early-career health and social care professionals to undertake advanced training leading to a research doctorate. She was in turn supervised by Professor Joe Keane, a HRB Clinician Scientist Award (CSA) holder. The CSA scheme is targeted at senior health practitioners and allows them to dedicate up to 50% of their time to research with the award paying for replacement clinical staff so that there is no overall loss in clinical care service levels. The award enables holders to conduct their research and mentor the next generation of research talent. The physical space for the research was provided by the Clinical Research Facility at St James’s which is one of three such major facilities that the HRB have financed in recent years.

Professor Keane adds, 'This research is only possible due to the generosity of Irish patients undergoing routine bronchoscopy procedures in St James's. They allow us to take lung cell samples during their procedure which we can then use in our research. There is no direct benefit to them, but they constantly amaze me with their willingness to contribute to treatment research for tuberculosis, which kills 1.3 million people each year. And with drug resistant strains becoming more common, we desperately need a therapeutic breakthrough.

The research was published this week in the Journal of Immunology and can be viewed at this link


For further information, please contact Brian Cummins, Communications Officer, HRB, t 0858879313, e bcummins(at)

Professor Keane and Dr Gleeson are available for further interview.

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