May 28, 2019
19-83

John Stephen
Communications Specialist

Tuberculosis Drug Created by VSU Students Progresses to International Trials

VSU students Olivia Moss, Jenu Thomas-Richardson, Marcus Diaz, and Courtney Johnson are now working with the Indian government in its efforts to eradicate tuberculosis from the country.

VALDOSTA — A tuberculosis (TB) drug created by Valdosta State University students is now being tested in India, where 40 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion citizens suffer from the disease. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to eradicate TB from his country by 2025, and VSU student researchers are hoping their drug can be part of the solution.

The student researchers are collaborating with a drug development lab in India as well as the Indian government to test the drug on substances coughed up by humans infected with TB. The goal is to bring the drug to market in the country in the coming years.

Over the past several years, various VSU chemistry and biology students have worked on developing the TB drug under the guidance of Dr. Thomas Manning, professor of chemistry. The current group — Olivia Moss, Marcus Diaz, Jenu Thomas-Richardson, and Courtney Johnson — has also developed a biodegradable implant meant to deliver the TB antibiotic more effectively.

Both the TB drug and implant are intended to solve several common obstacles associated with treating TB, a deadly lung disease that has killed one in seven people throughout history and remains a pervasive plague in numerous third-world countries, infecting a third of humans worldwide. 

“You basically die of drowning in your own blood,” said Manning, who has been involved in drug development research for more than two decades. “It happens slowly. You’re coughing up blood. You lose a lot of weight. You just wither away, and then you can’t breathe anymore. It’s an agonizing death.”

Because TB has been around for so long, the disease has grown resistant to many of the current antibiotics on the market, rendering such drugs largely ineffective. The drugs that do work can cost up to six figures for a full treatment cycle, putting them out of reach of impoverished populations where the disease is most common.

“I have an incredibly strong passion for people who are plagued with deadly diseases and have little to no access to medical treatment,” said Thomas-Richardson, a Valdosta native who graduated in Spring 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in biology and a double minor in chemistry and photography. She plans to pursue a career in medicine. “We just haven’t figured it out over time. [Some] 2.3 billion people are infected with it, and those people have potential. We’re not doing the best that we can in order to make sure that their potential is reached just like ours.”

Instead of inventing a new drug, VSU students have taken an existing antibiotic and given it a “Trojan horse” makeover, disguising it in a molecular structure that TB bacteria do not recognize. The chemically modified drug is able to sneak past the bacteria’s defenses and eradicate the illness, making it different from any other drug that currently exists.

The antibiotic, which is patent pending, has been tested extensively at the National Institutes of Health — seen as the gold standard for testing around the world — and is proven to effectively treat TB in living cells. The chemicals in the drug cost about one dollar a dose, making it attainable for third-world populations.

Another challenge with treating TB is the inconvenience for the patient. Typically, a person infected with the illness must travel to the doctor every day for at least six months to take a pill.

“When you’re on TB treatment, you can’t just take the medicine home and take it,” said Moss, a chemistry major and a Spanish minor from Valdosta who expects to graduate in Fall 2019 and then pursue a career in physical chemistry. “Doctors don’t trust you enough to do that because they’re afraid of antibiotic resistance, so they want to monitor you. A lot of people don’t finish their regimens because they can’t afford to travel to the hospital or they can’t bear the side effects associated with the pills.”

Moss, Diaz, Thomas-Richardson, and Johnson addressed this problem by creating a small biodegradable implant that can be inserted into a person’s arm near the pulmonary vein and carry the TB antibiotic to the lungs. The patented implant would carry a month’s worth of medicine and slowly dissolve harmlessly into the bloodstream.

The innovation would drastically cut down on the number of times TB patients need to see a doctor, from 120 daily visits for 120 pills over six months to just six monthly visits for six implant insertions.

“I didn’t realize how big the research was until I got involved, and that’s when my passion for it grew,” said Johnson, a biology major and chemistry minor from Warner Robins, Georgia, who expects to graduate in Fall 2019 and then attend dental school. “Knowing that we’re college students who are also doing something more and making a big impact is great.”

The students’ research has the potential to prevent widespread epidemics of TB infection, Diaz said. 

“All it takes is a sneeze to spread TB,” said Diaz, a biology and psychology major and a chemistry and religious studies minor from Axson, Georgia, who expects to graduate in Summer 2019. He plans to pursue a career in microbiology or infectious diseases.

“We are a global community,” Diaz said. “People travel internationally every day. Many countries are very concerned about the thought of an epidemic occurring in their own country, which is why drug research like this is so important.”

The TB research by VSU students has been published in medical and academic journals, and the students have received opportunities to present their work through a variety of avenues.

Moss and Diaz presented the research at the TiE Atlanta Youth Entrepreneurship Pitch Competition during the spring semester. They were one of only eight teams who progressed to the finals, which took place in Atlanta in April. In March, Thomas-Richardson presented the research to legislators and investors at the Georgia State Capitol. The research team, known as ValChem, also received recognition for their work from Georgia State Senator Ellis Black and State Representative Dexter Sharper during National Small Business Week in May.

The opportunities within this research for experiential learning and real-world experience, often on a global scale, has been immense. The students have learned to write business plans and patent applications and to present their research to entrepreneurs, government officials, and fellow scientists. They are learning the ins and outs of the system, which “gives us an incredible competitive edge going into grad school, medical school, and our careers,” Moss said. “Not many people can say that they’ve written multiple patents in undergrad.”

“What students learn in college should be seeds that are planted for life and pop up from time to time,” Manning said. “I think tackling real-world problems on a very competitive basis is critical. With our drug development work, we aren't competing against other undergrads or other schools like VSU; we are competing against large drug companies, major research universities, and national labs in other countries. A key component to our work is to develop an approach at VSU that consistently survives peer review at the academic and commercial levels and is truly novel or innovative in its approach.”

Contact Dr. Thomas Manning at tmanning@valdosta.edu to learn more.

On the Web:
www.valdosta.edu/chemistry
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