Major breakthrough in deadly TB

Mary Papayya

Mary Papayya

Durban scientists have made a major breakthrough in the fight against Extremely Drug Resistant TB (XDR) that could assist South Africa and the rest of the world to better understand and diagnose the strain.

But an effective cure is still to be developed.

In a two-month operation that began in July, the experts were able to decipher the key elements of the XDR organism, which is "an important step" in enabling medical practitioners to better diagnose the strain.

Manager of the National Genomics Platform James Sakwa, the chief researcher in the project, said the latest findings would be used in developing molecular diagnostic tools for XDR and MDR-TB.

"Our findings will assist clinicians in treating patients. It will also lead to a better understanding of the mutations leading to drug resistance in TB. We may now be closer to identifying potential therapeutic agents, including drugs that target drug resistant TB."

According to Sakwa, the type of research undertaken was completed in a record of two months but is generally known to take up to 12 months. He attributes the milestone to the updated technology used.

"The technology allowed us to glean vast amounts of information in a short space of time."

This technology was made possible by funding provided by the LIFElab innovation centre that forms part of the Department of Science and Technology's National Biotechnology Strategy.

XDR-TB is a type of tuberculosis that is extremely resistant to most anti-TB drugs and to some second tier drugs as well.

MDR-TB, or multi drug-resistant tuberculosis, is a form of tuberculosis that is resistant to two or more of the primary drugs used for the treatment of tuberculosis.

LIFElab says although XDR has been reported in other countries, SA appears to have an unusually high prevalence rate.

XDR was first reported early last year in KwaZulu-Natal Tugela Ferry basin, at Umsinga basin in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Of a group of 53 patients suffering from XDR-TB, all but one died within 25 days of being diagnosed.

Tony Moll, the doctor who first diagnosed XDR-TB at the Church of Scotland Hospital at Umsinga, says there had been 324 cases of the disease since 2005, and of that 188 patients have died.

Tuberculosis is an airborne illness that is particularly deadly for those with immune systems weakened by HIV, a virus that affects an estimated five million South Africans, or one in nine of the country's population.