North­eastern biology pro­fessor Kim Lewis has received a three-​​year $1.16 mil­lion grant from the National Insti­tutes of Health to lead the devel­op­ment of new treat­ments against tuber­cu­losis, a dis­ease that is increas­ingly resis­tant to antibi­otics, killing nearly two mil­lion people world­wide each year.

Lewis, director of Northeastern’s Antimi­cro­bial Dis­covery Center, and Eka­te­rina Gavrish, senior sci­en­tist at the center, will col­lab­o­rate with North­eastern biology pro­fessor Slava Epstein and Amy Spo­ering, a researcher at Novo­Bi­otic Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, based in Cam­bridge, MA. Their task: Iden­tify new species of bac­teria that pro­duce com­pounds that can kill Mycobac­terium tuber­cu­losis, the bac­terium that causes tuberculosis.

Only one per­cent of antibiotic-​​producing bac­teria will grow in the lab, says Lewis, which is why the researchers will focus on growing pre­vi­ously uncul­tivable forms of bac­teria. “By expanding the pool of resources, we hope to har­ness the poten­tial to develop novel drugs against tuber­cu­losis,” he says.

To begin the growth process, the team will place soil organ­isms into a dif­fu­sion chamber, which has semi-​​permeable mem­branes that enclose the bac­teria, and return them to the soil. This process tricks the bac­teria into per­ceiving the chamber as their nat­ural environment.

Once the bac­teria are iso­lated, they will be domes­ti­cated to grow on a Petri dish.

The North­eastern team will then screen extracts from the iso­lated bac­teria for activity against M. tuber­cu­losis. Once iden­ti­fied, the active extracts will be sent to Novo­Bi­otic Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, where antimi­cro­bial com­pounds will be puri­fied and sub­se­quently devel­oped into drugs.

Cur­rent anti-​​tuberculosis treat­ment reg­i­mens, devel­oped decades ago, take six months to com­plete. During the treat­ment process, the good (sym­bi­otic) bac­teria in the human gut are killed along with the bad bac­teria, causing unde­sir­able side effects.

Northeastern’s novel approach will focus on com­pounds that specif­i­cally target M. tuber­cu­losis, says Lewis: “We will have access to untapped resources that could lead to the devel­op­ment of a new gen­er­a­tion of antibi­otics to treat tuber­cu­losis and other dis­eases caused by Mycobacteria.”

The Antimi­cro­bial Dis­covery Center was founded in 2006 to trans­late basic sci­ence dis­cov­eries into novel antimi­cro­bial ther­a­pies to combat biowar­fare and con­ven­tional pathogen threats. The inter­dis­ci­pli­nary center, funded by grants from the National Insti­tutes of Health, National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and Depart­ment of Energy, draws fac­ulty mem­bers from biology, chem­istry, physics and phar­ma­ceu­tical sciences.