For World TB Day, CSU scientists take their tuberculosis research on the road

High School students participate in World TB Day activities at CSU

Students participate in a previous World TB Day at Colorado State University.  

Colorado State University’s Mycobacteria Research Laboratories were established nearly 40 years ago with the aim of understanding, preventing and treating diseases caused by the mycobacterial family of pathogens, tuberculosis the most famous among them.   

Before and since then, CSU has made many contributions in fighting these deadly diseases, but there’s lots more work to be done. Tuberculosis kills 1.5 million people per year worldwide, mostly in developing nations. The COVID-19 pandemic made access to treatment and testing more difficult, slowing progress against the disease.  

For these reasons, CSU leaders in mycobacteria research are renewing efforts to bring the next generation of researchers to the table to make new discoveries and win the long game against tuberculosis and related diseases. March 23-24, during global events marking World TB Day, a group of CSU students, faculty and staff will head to Fort Collins, Fossil Ridge and Poudre high schools to offer presentations and activities that serve as a crash course on what infectious disease research is all about.  

CSU’s outreach activities for World TB Day stretch back to 2015, with a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In previous years, local high schoolers had visited campus to learn about TB research; this year for the first time, CSU is going to them.   

“We wanted to create an environment that was more conducive to equity, so our vision is to actually go to the schools,” said Karen Dobos, co-director of the Mycobacteria Research Laboratories and a professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology. “We want to try and encourage more students to go into these STEM fields that contribute toward eliminating infectious disease as a public health concern.”  

In years to come, the team wants to extend World TB Day activities into rural Colorado schools, to reach even more students, according to Dobos.   

Infectious diseases are global

For many who live in the Western hemisphere, tuberculosis feels like a distant problem. But if the COVID pandemic taught us anything, it’s that infectious diseases don’t know geographic or political boundaries.  

“Infectious diseases are global,” said Marcela Henayo-Tamayo, co-director of the mycobacteria labs and assistant professor in microbiology. “We cannot think about infectious diseases as being endemic to some areas and staying there forever.”  

Though a vaccine for TB exists, it is not 100% effective, and its efficacy can wane. Henayo-Tamayo’s team recently published a study showing a positive link between prolonged exposure to non-tuberculous mycobacteria and tuberculosis vaccine efficacy.  

The more people in the West can internalize tuberculosis as a major problem, the closer humanity will get to controlling or eradicating this centuries-old disease, the researchers say.  

“We need to get rid of that ‘us’ and ‘them’ stigma,” Dobos said. “It’s not just ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It’s a quarter of us – a quarter of us are infected, and that means all of us need to care about blocking transmission and blocking spread. And that’s something we haven’t been able to effectively do.”  

The COVID pandemic diverted resources away from ongoing tuberculosis research, the researchers continued, as many infectious disease experts pivoted to COVID and coronaviruses in 2020. Mycobacteria are complicated to work with, hard to culture in the lab, and offer slower, painstaking scientific results – reasons for academics to choose other paths. But these complexities further underscore the passion that drives those who stay in mycobacterial research, particularly at CSU, which has about 150 people studying these diseases and finding better ways to treat or prevent them.

Facts about mycobacteria, the causative agents of tuberculosis and other diseases 

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease of the lungs that is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis.  

About a quarter of the world’s population has been infected with TB bacteria, but most will not go on to develop disease.  

The only available vaccine against TB is called Bacille Calmette-Guerin, or BCG. Usually administered in childhood in countries at highest risk for TB, the vaccine is only partially effective, and its efficacy tends to wane over time.  

Mycobacterium leprae are the mycobacteria that cause leprosy, an infectious disease that leads to nerve damage and targets skin, eyes, noses and muscles.  

Nontuberculous mycobacteria, or NTMs, are mycobacteria other than M. tuberculosis and M. leprae. NTMs are opportunistic organisms found in soil, dust and water, and are most likely to cause lung disease in people with depressed immune systems.