KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute and IBM to fight tuberculosis in South Africa

IBM's Big Data analytics aim to crack the code of the TB genome and uncover new diagnosis and treatments

IBM will use its Big Data analytics to research new treatment options to fight tuberculosis in South Africa.

The computer giant will work with the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) to use its technologies for bacterial genetics and drug susceptibility tests aimed at understanding better the genomic mechanisms that cause resistance to antibiotics.

The scale of the TB problem in Southern Africa is largely a result of HIV infection, lack of integration between HIV and TB treatments and historic challenges in healthcare delivery. Currently South Africa has the world's third-highest burden of TB, with the province of KwaZulu-Natal being the most affected. More than 100,000 cases of TB are reported every year from this province alone and over 60% are also infected with HIV.

K-RITH, which is based at the University of Kwazulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, is an independent research institute established in 2009 to conduct basic science research into TB and HIV, and translate the scientific findings into new tools to control these diseases. The Institute's work has boosted the TB and HIV research capabilities of scientists in South Africa. The work with IBM will enable K-RITH to understand bacteria genomes from drug-resistant strains of M. tuberculosis, the bacteria that causes TB.

More than 100,000 cases of TB are reported every year from the Kwa-Zulu Natal region

  According to Dr Alex Pym, Associate Investigator at K-RITH, the agreement with IBM will allow K-RITH to 'analyse data in new and imaginative ways and it holds the promise of giving us better insight into the mechanisms of drug resistance, leading to better diagnostic tests'.

The science has benefited from IBM’s global network of research labs and expertise in computational biology. Researchers from IBM's Haifa, Israel; Melbourne, Australia and Africa labs are working to analyse more than 200 TB genomes, each with 4.4 million base pairs, to understand better the complex clinical picture of African tuberculosis infections.

Michal Rosen-Zvi, Senior Manager of Analytics at IBM’s Research Lab in Haifa, said: 'TB drug resistance is a far more complex genome by comparison to something like the HIV virus. The bioinformatics or computational tools needed to extract information on the disease are very new, yet cracking the code of this genomic information will help define which treatment combinations work best for different patients and how they work on different strains of TB.'

He added: 'For HIV, technology can look at the difference in viral load before and after treatment, and use that to understand whether the treatment was a success. But in TB, there is no single measure that defines the status of the disease. We will need to develop multiple ways to label the treatment outcomes and new methods to indicate whether a treatment was effective.'

IBM's work on other solutions, including the EuResist programme, developed to help doctors select the optimal treatments for HIV patients, have paved the way for the use of bioinformatics in disease treatment. EuResist combines large databases and new prediction engines to provide predictive modelling of how HIV would react in a particular person treated with specific combination of drugs. This system, available since 2008, is the world’s largest database containing clinical and genomic information on HIV.

Dr Pym said: 'What we believe is that through the partnership between K-RITH and IBM we can combine and enable TB analytics from IBM to map which antibiotic treatments are successful for which TB strains. And then, by finding the associations between the genetic markers and the correct antibiotic treatment, we can improve treatment protocols. This can make a significant difference to many lives across the globe, let alone Africa.'