1. Please give a summary of your research
Tuberculosis (TB) is the world’s deadliest infectious disease. It affects a third of the global population and is a critical threat to human health in the Asia-Pacific region. Multi-drug resistant TB is rapidly spreading, so we desperately need new anti-TB drugs, and drugs that improve the effectiveness of current treatments.
It has been known for a long time that the bacteria which causes TB is able to sabotage the normal host immune response so that it can grow within humans. It is also known that patients suffering from TB make an excessive amount of platelets (clot forming cells). My innovative idea was to ask whether the TB bacteria is driving this process and hijacking platelets to aid its own survival.
To investigate this hypothesis, I used the well-established zebrafish/M. marinum model of tuberculosis infection. The great advantage of this model is that zebrafish larvae are transparent, so fluorescently tagged bacteria and cells can be used to observe platelet involvement in infection in real time in a live animal.
Using this model, I discovered that platelets are recruited by the bacteria, and help them help them survive and grow. When I used aspirin and other anti-platelet drugs to block this interaction, the severity of infection in the fish was reduced by half.
These discoveries provide evidence that cheap, safe, and easily available anti-platelet drugs like aspirin might provide an effective treatment for tuberculosis.
2. Please include any additional details you would like to share
Tuberculosis is a lung disease, and you might have noticed that zebrafish don't have lungs. A great question I often get asked is "how relevant is any of this to humans?" Surprisingly Zebrafish have very similar immune systems to humans, so we can learn a lot about infectious disease by using them.
Even better, my key finding - that anti-platelet drugs can be used to treat tuberculosis - has now been tested in humans, and it has been shown that adding aspirin to normal anti-tuberculosis treatment significantly increases the survival of patients with TB.