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Tuberculosis: Global killer with Colorado connection

by Coleman Cornelius

Dozens of northern Colorado high-school students on March 24 will gain an inside look at an infectious disease that kills an estimated 1.5 million people each year - and the urgent scientific quest to halt it.

The lab-level view of tuberculosis comes courtesy of the world’s largest group of university researchers investigating TB: a Colorado State University brain trust of about 170 experts in all aspects of the disease.

Why CSU?

Tuberculosis patients flocked to Colorado in the early 1900s and often were treated in specialized hospitals, like this one run by the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society in Denver. Photo courtesy of National Jewish HealthThe United States has virtually eradicated TB with aggressive immunization, disease-response and public-health programs. It wasn’t always so. In the early 1900s, TB killed one of every seven people living in the United States and Europe, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colorado: the 'World's Sanatorium'

Many sufferers came to Colorado seeking the curative effects of the state’s sunshine and clean, dry air. In fact, Colorado became a TB mecca – often called the “World’s Sanatorium” – with specialized hospitals established across the state.

One history scholar said that in the early 1900s a staggering one-third of Colorado’s population came to the state because of tuberculosis. Many consumptives improved, and then stayed in Colorado to build businesses and contribute to communities.

Consumptives treated in Colorado, known as the 'World's Sanatorium,' had a strict regimen of rest and fresh air. Photo courtesy of National Jewish Health.

Just one example: F.O. Stanley, co-inventor with his brother of the Stanley Steamer automobile. Stanley, who was raised in Maine, traveled to Estes Park on doctor’s orders to overcome tuberculosis. As his condition dramatically improved, he founded the famous Stanley Hotel and cemented tourism in Estes Park.

TB and the CSU vet school

Tuberculosis even fueled rapid growth of the veterinary school at what would become Colorado State University.

Beginning in 1917 and accelerating in the 1930s, the U.S. government poured money into programs to eradicate bovine tuberculosis – the form of TB that affects cattle and is spread from infected cows to people through raw, unpasteurized milk.

The focus on herd testing for tuberculosis dramatically opened job opportunities for veterinarians, even during the Great Depression, and provided Colorado’s vet school with the ability to flourish.

“Many people know that our college has tremendous expertise in veterinary medicine and in infectious disease. But the connection of our veterinary training program to the zoonotic form of tuberculosis in cattle is not well-known, and it’s fascinating to consider,” said Dr. Mark Stetter, a veterinarian and dean of the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Investigator Mary Jackson and post-doctoral fellow Rabeb Dhouib work in the CSU Mycobacteria Research Laboratories.

Many experts cite cattle testing for tuberculosis and widespread pasteurization of milk for blunting TB and improving public health in the United States. 

Expertise continues in research

Colorado’s TB connection continues in a different form today: CSU is one of the world’s foremost tuberculosis research universities, with noted expertise in the science of TB and related infectious diseases.

In the mid-1980s, the university’s powerhouse TB group began with the arrival of investigators Patrick Brennan and Ian Orme, who together focused on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, built world-renowned research programs and became University Distinguished Professors.

Even as public-health programs have quelled tuberculosis in the United States, TB remains a serious global killer. It is spread most often by airborne bacteria and attacks the lungs, and in many ways TB is more difficult to prevent and treat than ever before.

CSU researchers urge young scientists to join the quest for a tuberculosis cure.

About one-third of the global population is infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and millions fall ill each year, according to the World Health Organization. Worsening the epidemic is the alarming spread of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, as well as the disproportionate impact of tuberculosis on people whose immune systems are weakened by HIV.

Urgent quest for cure

Scientists at CSU – housed in the university’s Mycobacteria Research Laboratories – work with colleagues around the world to discover new TB diagnostics, treatments and vaccines to combat the disease.

 “TB remains an intractable problem in many resource-poor regions of the world,” said Randall Basaraba, one of CSU’s well-known tuberculosis researchers. “With one-third of the human population infected with the bacteria, and with the emergence of drug-resistant strains, there is an urgent need to develop better treatment strategies and to discover the next generation of new antimicrobial drugs.”

Since 1981, when the Mycobacteria Research Laboratories began, the CSU team has received more than $100 million in research funding the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other agencies and foundations.