EPFL becomes world center for tuberculosis study

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Tuberculosis still affects thousands of victims worldwide. And with the inauguration of a laboratory specializing in air-borne pathogens Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has become one of the world centers for research in the domain one week before the World Tuberculosis Day, organized by the WHO.

With this new laboratory, EPFL disposes an indispensable research tool in the fight against tuberculosis. Financed by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Swiss Government, the lab is open to researchers from EPFL and nearby universities in order to study in vivo strains of Bacillus anthracis, the air-borne pathogen causing tuberculosis. The teams led by EPFL professors Stewart Cole and John McKinney will be testing their new therapies in the laboratory that will be inaugurated on the 17th of March.

The laboratory opening precedes the World Tuberculosis Day organized by the World Health Organization on the 24th of March. The disease is far from being a thing of the past – it remains a public danger not only for developing nations but for industrialized ones as well. There are around 500 cases of tuberculosis each year in Switzerland alone. “In the Département 93 in France and in certain neighborhoods in London the rate of tuberculosis disease is as high as in Sub-Sahara Africa,” explains Stewart Cole, EPFL professor and director of the Global Health Institute at the school. And it is in Eastern Europe where the most virulent and antibiotic-resistant strains are found. “It is a matter of utmost concern,” continues the researcher, “for around 70% of the patients do not survive in the absence of effective treatment.” Researchers will work on strains used around the world at the new EPFL laboratory. “These strains are less aggressive than those found in nature, or even in hospitals,” explains Stewart Cole. But this does not mean that security is less of a concern. The new EPFL laboratory tool is at par with the severe standards of the other P3 laboratories in Switzerland, of which there are around 50. Stewart Cole was scientific director of the Institut Pasteur. In 2007, he became director of the Global Health Institute at EPFL. He is best known as a pioneer in the study of the genomes of the tuberculosis bacteria as well as leprosy. His recent studies have lead to the discovery of a substance able to combat bacteria. This substance attacks the bacteria’s defense system, a tough outer layer that normally protects it against antiseptics, antibiotics, and immune defenses. Named BTZ043, the chemical will soon undergo phase 1 clinical trials. John McKinney has been with EPFL since 2007. The American researcher is looking to understand which mechanisms allow for the bacteria to become dormant, a period during which treatment is ineffective. “I came to EPFL because there is an interdisciplinary spirit that is hard to find elsewhere,” explains the biologist. Working with engineers specialized in microfluids, McKinney has participated in mounting a unique laboratory tool that allows for the observation of individual tuberculosis bacterium during extended periods thus permitting researchers to follow the bacterium’s evolution through time-lapse photography. EPFL has become a first-rate world center for tuberculosis research with the addition of these two researchers and thanks to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation the school has the missing piece of the puzzle to let them realize their ambitions. There will be organized visits to the different laboratories as well as a conference for the inauguration tomorrow, the 17th March, at 2:15 pm. Last minute inscriptions for medias at: diane.cevat [a] epfl (p) ch Contact: Lionel Pousaz, Media and Communication Service, lionel.pousaz [a] epfl (p) ch or +41 79 559 71 61 © 2010 EPFL P SMC, CM 2 362 (Centre Midi), Station 10, CH-1015 Lausanne , Tél. 021 693 22 22 - Fax 021 693 64 00 , Service média & communications EPFL
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