Jul 142009
Authors: Lauren Leete

A letter from Ian Orme, more than a decade old, hangs on Tony Frank’s office wall informing Frank that he had been fired from his position as an assistant professor –/an old joke between the two, who are long time friends.

Frank, who now sits in the President’s Office, recently recognized Orme, a CSU professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, as a university distinguished professor, where only 13 other active faculty members share this title.

“I was very honored and gratified,” Orme said.

The honorary title identifies faculty members who have been recognized nationally and internationally for outstanding work in their field.

“It is quite an honor,” said Edward Hoover, a fellow distinguished professor and department head of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology. “(We) represent less than 1 percent of the faculty.”

Orme’s work focuses on how the immune system responds to tuberculosis in the lungs, how to prevent it with vaccines and how to treat the multi-drug resistant strands with drugs.

“It is the No. 1 bacterial infection in the world and the No. 1 cause of death in Africa,” said Orme — who came to Colorado from England after receiving a Ph.D. from The University of London — in a thick British accent.

An airborne bacterium, tuberculosis usually infects the lungs, invading cells and crossing into the bloodstream.

A person with a healthy immune system can contain these bacteria, preventing their growth and showing no noticeable symptoms. However, an immunodeficient person, like an HIV victim, cannot combat tuberculosis, allowing the disease to worsen.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where Orme has conducted research programs, there is a direct correlation between an increase in HIV cases and those acquiring tuberculosis.

“HIV and TB is called the perfect storm,” Orme said.

Some scientists say that after the bacteria’s growth is inhibited, they become dormant, but can be reactivated later in life, but Orme disagrees.

“Latency — no one really truly understands what (that) means. I’m a radical to say it doesn’t exist. Gone to sleep — turned off — (it’s) definitely not turned off,” Orme said.

Tuberculosis is generally very difficult to treat because there are several multi-drug resistant strains. Additionally, the bacteria spreads to places in the body where the drugs cannot reach it and create a biofilm community able to withstand the drug.

Normally, it is a chronic disease, but in a recent outbreak in South Africa a couple of years ago one drug-resistant strain killed 60 people in three weeks.

“(That’s) unusual. I’m very worried about things like that,” Orme said of the outbreak.

The current vaccine, which has been widely used for about 60 years, is mostly administered to children as a preventative measure.

“At first it was pretty good; (it) protected children. (But) after 10 or 15 years, (there’s) no protection. (It) loses its punch,” Orme said.

Orme hopes to not completely do away with the current vaccine, but rather develop a booster shot. His lab’s vaccine is presently undergoing clinical trials.

A colleague of Orme’s at Oxford, New England has innovated a new method of delivering tuberculosis proteins in the body through a small pox vaccine for the immune system to build a response.

Vaccine and drug development can be very expensive, and, as grant writing becomes more competitive, researchers like Orme are spending copious amounts of time vying for federal and private money.

“(It’s) hard work — just have to keep doing it … (it’s) a full-time job, seven days a week,” Orme said.

The grant writing process takes about nine months to complete. With the federal budget dwindling for research, scientists are putting more faith in private organizations to fund their projects.

Orme said he is not only concerned with funding for the sake of the science; he is more concerned with the people in his lab.

“No grants, no money — (lab) technicians get laid off,” he said.

Last year, Orme received the Bill and Melinda Gates Grant, which brought $1.25 million dollars to his lab for its research in developing multi-drug resistant treatments for tuberculosis.

TB treatment and outbreaks in the United States and in Africa differ mainly due to the culture.

With control programs and rigorous efforts to contain the spread of infection, the United States has the ability to culture an individual’s bacteria and test which drugs kill it before administering it to the patient.

But in Africa, there is not enough money or time to test each individual’s bacterial infection, so scientists resort to a process of elimination. Also, the African culture is centered on centuries-old traditions, like visiting a witch doctor to make sure the prescription is viable to take.

Staff writer Lauren Leete can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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