A UNM Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Department team’s research has potentially resulted in a new and more effective way to combat tuberculosis and other inflammatory diseases.

In November department chair Vojo Deretic and his post-doctoral researchers published their new research on autophagy in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Autophagy is the process by which specialized cell bodies eliminate damaged or infected parts of a cell. Their research suggests that this process, which suppresses inflammation, could be useful on a large scale for counteracting the body’s overactive immune response to tuberculosis. This is because inflammation weakens healthy cells.

“What we’ve shown is actually that autophagy can get rid of tuberculosis; it degrades it,” said Eliseo Castillo, a post-doc researcher on Deretic’s team.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a deadly bacterial disease that has been frequently linked to death in people who have HIV and AIDS.
“It’s an opportunistic pathogen in AIDS,” Deretic said, “and worldwide, people die, not because they have (an) HIV infection, but because TB comes with it. It’s the lethal duet, so to speak.”

The team is now expanding its research to other diseases that may function similarly to tuberculosis, such as inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s Disease. Their research may even lead to a breakthrough in cancer, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis research.

“In essence, the drugs that we are developing for TB, part of the project for HIV, could work … in any inflammatory disease,” Deretic said.

The team has also begun the process of drug development, testing compounds already approved by the FDA.

Deretic said final treatments may be developed earlier than expected.

“You think it may take the next generation; I think it’s going to be faster than that because we’re focusing on drugs that are already FDA-approved,” he said. “It could be 10 years down the line.”

Deretic added that the progress of this research has required minds from different backgrounds.

“We have genetics, biology, microbiology, infectious disease, microscopy … it takes a village to come up with a significant study these days, so you need to be multidisciplinary,” he said.
Castillo said that to succeed as researchers, not only do students need to be academically multidisciplinary, but they also need to expand on themselves.

“I think you just have to be a renaissance person — you know, not only do science but do the math, do the writing, do literature,” he said. “If you’re trained by scientists who are trained by scientists, it makes you wonder, are you all going to have the same approach?”

UNM offers research opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students at the University, and Deretic said his research team encourages students to participate in research on campus.

“These (scientific endeavors) require both the youthful energy and the old sage kind of view of the big picture,” he said. “That’s when it starts working well.”