NAU receives patent for technique that could stop TB in its tracks

DNA strip

A Northern Arizona University team of scientists has received a patent for a technique that could help control the spread of tuberculosis, the second deadliest infectious disease among adults worldwide.

The team developed a new system for identifying different genetic strains of the TB-causing bacterium,Mycobacterium tuberculosum.

“The technique provides a faster, cheaper and more precise method of testing for these strains,” said Paul Keim, NAU Regents Professor and the Cowden Endowed Chair in Microbiology, the lead member of the three-person NAU team. Also named on the patent are James Schupp, assistant director of the Microbial Genetics and Genomics Center at NAU, and Robert Scott Spurgiesz, a former undergraduate student.

The speed and accuracy of this new genetic subtyping system will boost efforts to identify the sources of TB infection. In what Keim describes as “molecular sleuthing,” the system will allow health professionals to track down how a person became infected with TB. The “DNA fingerprint” from an infected individual will be compared with other samples in a national database to backtrack an infectious strain to its point of origin.

“We can identify where a TB infection came from and control it at its source,” Keim said.

The methodology used to develop the typing system for M. tuberculosum is similar to the technique Keim and his colleagues used to distinguish one anthrax sample from another during the post-9/11 anthrax scare.

“As such, this represents a peace dividend from the war on terrorism,” Keim said.

The newly patented system holds potential for commercial production of kits, and NAU is “actively discussing” commercial use with various companies, according to Keim, who also serves as director of the Translational Genomics Research Institute’s (T-Gen) Pathogen Genomics Division.

“Very few companies will risk their capital on commercialization efforts unless there is patent protection for an invention first,” he said.

Moving discoveries from laboratory research to clinical application to benefit patients is the “translation” component of T-Gen.

Although the United States has the lowest rate of TB, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than one-third of the world’s population is infected with M. tuberculosum. Each year, about 9 million people become ill with TB, and 2 million of those die.

“The ability of the disease to develop resistance to treatments and to travel easily across borders makes worldwide TB control efforts critical,” according to a March news release from the CDC.

This latest patent—one of seven that have been issued to NAU—almost went unnoticed by Keim. He thought little of the deluge of mailings he was getting at home and throwing away as “junk mail” until his wife told him he ought to take a second look. When he did, he saw that the mailings were from vendors advertising plaques to commemorate the patent. Certainly an inauspicious way to find out about your first patent.