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Texas BioMed to train scientists on Tuberculosis research using federal grant

Tuberculosis-related deaths are up for the first time in more than a decade, the World Health Organization says.

SAN ANTONIO — The National Institutes of Health have granted Texas Biomed $5.8 million to house one of the nation's first Tuberculosis research training centers. 

The money, doled out over five years, will help scientists impart knowledge on "the next generation" of TB researchers, said Texas Biomed's Joanne Turner. 

Turner serves as the San Antonio institute's executive vice president for research. She is considered a leading authority in Tuberculosis studies. 

"We can't do this forever," she said Thursday. "We have to make sure our trainees are really competent and have no fear tackling challenging problems." 

TB, a bacterial infection which spreads when a person coughs, sneezes, or talks, is a worsening global problem. The World Health Organization recently announced the Coronavirus pandemic erased years of progress toward stifling the bacterial infection. 

Global Tuberculosis-related deaths jumped from 1.4 million in 2019 to 1.5 million in 2020, the first increase in more than a decade. Doctors say the pandemic limited infected patients' access to TB treatment. 

There is a Tuberculosis vaccine, though its effectiveness is limited. 

Treatment generally consists of a cumbersome antibiotic cocktail. TB patients must often take dozens of pills every day for months. 

Because initial treatments are sometimes ineffective, the infection can mutate in a person and become drug-resistant. 

"TB is a massive problem for us to solve," Turner said. "It's a very complex infection and very complex to treat." 

Turner says she hopes to develop a more potent vaccine, better medication, and more effective tools for diagnosing TB. 

In essence, Texas Biomed will use the federal grant to train younger scientists how to wield a broad repertoire of TB research tools. Trainees will study at patients' bedsides and in the classroom. 

"They don't have to be 100 percent an expert," she said. "But they need to have enough understanding that they know how to answer the right questions and which technology will answer those questions." 

Texas Biomed will partner with San Antonio's Texas Center for Infectious Diseases, the nation's only freestanding Tuberculosis hospital. The institute will also coordinate with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.  

"We have those connections in place," Turner said. "That was the strength of the grant (application): the revieweres could see that we didn't have to find something new. We were doing this already."

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