UC Davis professor of medicine, Jay Solnick, will continue his groundbreaking research in latent tuberculosis thanks to a recent grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Solnick is among 104 researchers who were recently chosen from 4,000 applicants to receive grants of $100,000 from the foundation’s “Grand Challenges Explorations Initiative.” The program, which awarded grants in 22 countries, aims to “explore bold and largely unproven ways to improve global health,” according to the foundation’s website.
Solnick and his colleagues will use the funding to continue their research in latent tuberculosis, a condition in which an individual is infected with mycobacterium tuberculosis but does not display any symptoms of the disease.
“Ninety percent of people that get infected [with mycobacterium] never get sick,” Solnick said. “In the condition of latent TB, the organism is in the body but the person shows no symptoms and is not contagious. However, there is still some chance that it may activate years or decades later for any number of reasons.“
Understanding why latent TB occurs is a vital step in the ultimate search for a cure to the disease, Solnick said.
“One of the goals of the Gates foundation is figuring out how to maintain TB in latency,” he said. “If we can do this, we can essentially eliminate the disease because if everybody who currently has TB could stay latent, they would not infect anybody else.… Eventually the infected persons would die and there would be no more TB.“
Solnick and his colleagues have proposed that one explanation for the occurrence of latent TB may be an enhanced immune response caused by infection with Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that has been linked to ulcers and stomach cancer.
“We did a lot of studies on individuals in the Gambia in Africa, as well as on immigrants in the Bay Area,” said Julie Parsonnet, professor of medicine at Stanford University, who has worked extensively with Solnick. “We found that when individuals were exposed to TB, those infected with helicobacter were far more likely to develop a latent form of the disease.“
Solnick and his team plan to do further human studies in Pakistan and the Gambia to confirm their hypothesis – something that would not have been possible without the funding from the Gates foundation, Solnick said.
In addition, Solnick and his colleagues will also be conducting experiments using samples of non-human primates from studies conducted by JoAnne Flynn, professor of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh and a UCD alumna.
“[My colleagues and I] have been researching tuberculosis in animal models for 18 years,” Flynn said. “Eight years ago we decided to change from a mouse model over to experiments in primates because primates, unlike other animals, exhibit all the same characteristics of human TB – including the active and latent forms.“
Flynn will send Solnick samples of primates, half of whom developed an active form of the disease, and the other half who contracted a latent form.
“[Dr. Solnick] will use the samples we send him to then establish if there is a correlation between the infected status of the primate and whether or not they also have helicobacter,” she said. “There is no evidence that TB infection can be prevented, so maintaining latency is the best hope we have right now in terms of finding a cure to the disease.“
Solnick said that if his hypothesis is correct, one of his future goals would be figuring out a way to engineer a Helicobacter pylori bacterium that does not cause ulcers or cancer in its host.
“One of our pie in the sky goals would be to develop a helicobacter strain that is non-pathogenic but still acts as an immune modulator for TB,” he said. “It would essentially be a way of having our cake and eating it too.“
Solnick said one of the unique aspects about his application for the Gates grant was that the foundation was not interested in a scientist’s credentials or reputation.
“The application process was very simple and short,” he said. “The foundation did not ask for a lot of details about your background…. They were primarily interested in your idea and whether it was innovative.“
Solnick and his colleagues will have the opportunity to receive further funding from the foundation after a year.
“Winning the first grant allows us to compete next year for a grant of at least $1 million,” Solnick said. “It is great because if you show promise with your research, then the foundation will fund your work on a much larger scale.“
Parsonnet said she has confidence that Solnick’s research will be successful.
“I have been working with Dr. Solnick for many years and he is a great researcher,” she said. “I think it is a very realistic goal that he will eventually be able to find a way to prevent active TB – it is something that is in the very real future.“
ERICA LEE can be reached at email@example.com.