January 15, 2018

Research Roundup: Stem cells and TB, the research agenda to end malaria, and a monkey species role in ending AIDS

Program Assistant
PATH/Georgina Goodwin
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In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

Researchers discovered a way to reprogram immune cells to attack tuberculosis (TB), potentially paving the way for new methods to combat the disease. Traditionally, TB vaccine research has focused on activating T cells, which has yielded overall mediocre results. In this case, researchers turned their attention to stem cells. They found that when they administered the current TB vaccine BCG to mice in a way that accessed the mice’s bone marrow, it was able to reprogram their stem cells to mobilize white blood cells capable of swallowing and killing TB-causing bacteria. Researchers were then able use this finding to dissect the genomic pathways involved in triggering this enhanced immune response. Though further research is needed on the potential of stem cells, researchers are hopeful this new method could lead to a more effective vaccine against the disease.

A group of 180 scientists, malaria program leaders, and global policymakers recently updated the Malaria Eradication Research Agenda (malERA) Refresh Collection, a research and development agenda that aims to accelerate progress toward total malaria elimination and eradication. Launched in 2011, the original agenda aimed to identify key knowledge gaps and define tools needed to combat malaria. The updated version addresses progress made and identifies the main challenges remaining across the areas of basic science and enabling technologies; combination interventions and modeling; diagnostics, drugs, vaccines, and vector control; insecticide and drug resistance; characterizing the reservoir and measuring transmission; and health systems and policy research. The developers of the collection hope it will provide a framework for malaria-focused research funders, the World Health Organization, and impacted nations as they make programmatic decisions for malaria elimination and eradication.

Scientists at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center believe the genomic sequence of the sooty mangabey monkey may provide useful knowledge in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Sooty mangabeys are natural hosts for the Simonian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)—a genetic relative of the HIV infection—yet the animals are able to maintain healthy levels of immune cells after infection, preventing any future progression to an AIDS-like disease. After sequencing the genome of the sooty mangabey and comparing it to the genomes of humans and other apes, scientists found two major differences in immune system proteins in the genome of the sooty mangabey, which may help scientists better understand why sooty mangabeys avoid AIDS-like illness despite SIV infection. Scientists hope that further research on these genomic differences will pave the way for improved long-term care of HIV-positive individuals, including pregnant women, and unlock new avenues for vaccine research.