Eradicating Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis (TB), an infectious disease which often attacks the lungs, has been wreaking havoc on humans and other animals for thousands of years. While its mortality rate has dropped significantly in developed countries, TB is still endemic in many underdeveloped countries throughout the world and remains one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, killing 1.6 million people in 2017, according to the World Health Organization.

Dyson Biology Professor MARCY KELLY, PhD, has dedicated much of her scientific research to better understanding tuberculosis—with the long-term goal of eradicating it completely.

“My lab focuses on the interaction between the human immune response and the organism that causes tuberculosis,” says Kelly. “The ultimate goal of our work is to provide information to understand how our body handles the disease in order to help pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines.”

While pharmaceutical companies offer tuberculosis vaccines, Kelly notes that they have low efficacy and could be significantly improved. As the research has spanned several years, she has enlisted several students to assist her. Eric Casper ’19, who worked on Kelly’s team for the majority of his undergraduate career, looked at how the bacteria that remains in the body following a tuberculosis diagnosis could—potentially over the span of several decades—re-emerge when the immune system is weakened.

“My research is figuring out how the bacteria remains alive within the dormant state,” says Casper, who won “Best Microbiology Platform Talk” at the 2019 Eastern Colleges Science Conference.

The duo traveled to San Francisco to present their work at the annual American Society for Microbiology Microbe Conference. And while striving to make major gains in understanding one of the world’s more devastating diseases is critical, Kelly says one of the most satisfying aspects of her research is watching students develop the skills necessary to become effective researchers and scientists.

“A lot of the work I do with the students is really helping them develop their critical thinking skills,” says Kelly. “Working in a lab, that’s not the important point. The important point is thinking about what kind of questions we want to ask, evaluating what does the data mean on a smaller scale and then also what does the data mean in the context of the entire research project.”

Kelly’s research may be dealing with tiny, tiny organisms, but there’s no doubt that its impact on both Casper and the general scientific community has been major.