Researchers are making progress toward creating better tuberculosis (TB) vaccines. The one existing TB vaccine does not sufficiently protect adolescents or adults and is only moderately effective in young children. A series of scientific advancements comes at a pivotal time in the fight against TB, as the virus grows more resistant to antibiotics. TB killed 1.6 million people in 2021, making it the world’s most deadly infectious disease after HIV/AIDS and COVID-19. Scientists are on the verge of clearing the major roadblocks to a useful TB vaccine. A research team in South Africa identified the parts of the TB virus, called proteins, most vulnerable to the human immune system. These discoveries were made possible by a new method of analyzing immune cells, invented in 2019 by Stanford University researcher Huang Huang. Using this technique, the South African team appears to have found a key to unleashing the body’s defenses against the virus. However, knowing which viral proteins to target is just one part of the puzzle. Scientists still needed a way to manufacture dead viral proteins in the vaccine and deliver it to the immune system. The success of mRNA vaccines them to essentially bypass this step in the vaccine development process. While many other vaccines include a dead fragment of a virus to stimulate an immune response, mRNA vaccines technology contains only the genetic code of the protein. This code teaches the immune system which viral proteins to look out for and prepare defenses against. Multiple non-profit laboratories and drug companies are now working on mRNA vaccines against TB which utilize the proteins targeted by the South African researchers.
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