The Texas Biomedical Research Institute will use a $3.5 million National Institutes of Health grant to help create the next generation of tuberculosis vaccines, the San Antonio-based institute announced Monday.

Texas Biomed has been researching the serious and sometimes fatal bacterial disease since 2017, helping make significant headway with how tuberculosis is diagnosed and treated.

Today, the only approved tuberculosis vaccine, used commonly in other countries but not the U.S., primarily protects children. Texas Biomed hopes this grant will help change that.

“Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that’s caused immense human mortality and suffering for thousands of years — we need to do better,” said the grant’s principal investigator Gillian Beamer, a Texas Biomed staff scientist and adjunct associate professor. “This collaboration is exciting because we are bringing scientists with different expertise together to tackle this challenge.”

Tuberculosis infects more than 10 million people globally each year, and killed more than 1.5 million people in 2020. Before COVID-19, it was the leading cause of death by a single infectious agent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 13 million people in the U.S. are estimated to be living with a latent tuberculosis infection. 

Texas Biomed is one of two institutes to receive the grant, the other being the Access to Advanced Health Institute, located in Seattle. The two institutes will work together to evaluate how various vaccine combinations administered in two doses perform in the lab and in animal models, Texas Biomed said in its release.

“Texas Biomed is excited to partner on this project,” said Texas Biomed Executive Vice President for Research Joanne Turner. “The institute’s expertise in both tuberculosis research and animal model development are critical to move research like this forward.”

The two institutes will complete an animal model study using genetically diverse mice to identify which vaccines will protect those most susceptible to tuberculosis.

Most models are performed on genetically similar mice to avoid adding too many uncontrolled variants into an experiment. Using genetically diverse mice in this case, experts said, will enable the scientists to see how individuals with different genetic backgrounds respond to different vaccines.

This grant comes on the heels of another NIH grant Texas Biomed received earlier this year for similar research. In March, the NIH selected Texas Biomed as one of four inaugural “Interdisciplinary NexGen Tuberculosis Research Advancement Centers.” In that program, Texas Biomed will receive $5.8 million over five years to help train the next generation of tuberculosis researchers.

“The environment for tuberculosis research in San Antonio is remarkable thanks to the combination of expertise, resources and partners here in South Texas,” Texas Biomed President, CEO and principal investigator Larry Schlesinger said.

“This new training center will build on this rich network, attract top talent to the region, and help transform the future of the field. You can’t end tuberculosis without training the next generation.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.