Saint Louis University studies TB vaccine

Friday, May 29, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS— Saint Louis University researchers want to know if a standard vaccine used in foreign countries against tuberculosis can be improved.

They're investigating a vaccine, bacillus Calmette-Guerin, or BCG, to see if giving it as a drink, an injection, or a combination of the two could increase immune response against the illness.

It's believed about one-third of the world's population is infected with the microbes that cause tuberculosis. One in 10 will become sick with active tuberculosis in their lifetime. It's a bacterial disease that most commonly affects the lungs, and can be treated with a long course of antibiotics, according to the World Health Organization's Web site.

The BCG vaccine is given to infants in other countries, and it's believed to provide some protection against tuberculosis, especially in children.

"However, despite widespread use of BCG, TB remains a major cause of death worldwide," said the study's lead investigator Dr. Daniel Hoft in a statement.

The hope is that changing the way the vaccine is given could increase immune response against tuberculosis lung infection and the spread of the disease through the body.

The school is seeking 70 healthy volunteers ages 18 to 40 for the research. The study will last about two years and requires up to 21 clinical visits.

The school is the only one in the nation enrolling people for this study.

The work is being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

"It's really critical research," said Dr. Christine Sizemore, chief of tuberculosis, leprosy and other mycobacterial diseases at NIAID in Bethesda, Md., on Thursday. She said the research will help scientists dissect much more closely the immune responses from the existing vaccine.

There is no vaccine that prevents tuberculosis, but Sizemore said the BCG vaccine has been shown to be good at preventing the childhood complications of TB. However, it has had very limited effectiveness for adults who have the pulmonary version of tuberculosis.

"This vaccine is the yardstick we use to measure improvements in other vaccines," she said.

When researchers better understand how old vaccines work, and discover how administering them differently affects the immune system, it can lead to new approaches in treating the disease or provide some insight into developing a new vaccine, she explained.

The BCG vaccine is not usually recommended for use in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control said that's because of the low risk of tuberculosis infection here, the varying effectiveness of the vaccine against adult pulmonary tuberculosis, and the vaccine's potential to interfere with the test which shows if someone actually has been exposed to tuberculosis.

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