Scientists at the The University of Queensland and the University of California San Francisco have found a new way to inhibit the growth of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis (lat. Phthisis). UQ School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences Deputy Head Professor James De Voss said the discovery held promise for the development of treatments. The research team, led by Professor Paul Ortiz de Montellano in the US, investigated the impact of compounds related to cholesterol on the tuberculosis-causing bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Cholesterol is known to affect the virulence and infectivity of TB.

Professor De Voss explained what Dr Montellano’s team and the University of Queensland's team have shown is that if to give this bacterium modified cholesterol instead, then it can’t use it as its energy source and so it stops growing. Interestingly, scientists don’t quite understand why this happens.

This discovery suggests a new way in which researchers can robustly inhibit the growth of the TB bacterium. Tuberculosis is a highly infectious lung disease that kills one person every 21 seconds. There were 9.6 million new cases of TB in 2014, resulting in 1.5 million deaths. One in three people globally is infected with TB, with the bulk of the disease burden falling on developing countries.

Professor De Voss said the scale of the threat, compounded by the emergence of increasingly drug-resistant strains of bacteria, meant it was vital to find new ways to combat tuberculosis.

The team at the University of Queensland, including postdoctoral research fellow Dr Siew Hoon Wong, was responsible for synthesising inhibitors of the enzymes used to modify the cholesterol by M. tuberculosis. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Professor De Voss said his team is partnering with School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences researcher Dr Nick West, who is the founder and Laboratory Head of the UQ Tuberculosis Research Laboratory, the only Australian laboratory dedicated to TB microbiology.