An Irish-based research team has made a significant discovery which could open the door to alternative immunotherapy-based treatments for tuberculosis.
Currently the bacterium which causes TB is treated with antibiotics but the disease is fast becoming resistant to many of the most effective medicines.
While the incidence of TB in Ireland has fallen significantly in recent years, from 7,000 cases per annum in the early 1950s to 328 in 2014, it still remains a significant problem globally, claiming 1.3 million lives each year.
Research led by Trinity College Dublin and St James's Hospital clinical research fellow Dr Laura Gleeson has discovered the significance of a change in a particular immune system cell in the lung that fights TB.
Dr Gleeson has found that the change in the alveolar macrophage cell can alter its metabolism, causing it to produce a protein called interleukin-1.
The scientists have demonstrated for the first time in a human lung that the protein can make the immune system much more effective at fighting TB.
The team says the research, published in the Journal of Immunology, is a "game changer" when it comes to new approaches to fighting TB that do not involve antibiotics.
The next challenge is to find a pre-existing drug, already deemed to be safe, that can cause the immune system to react in the required way and produce the interleukin-1.
The research has been funded under the Health Research Board's Health Professional Fellowship scheme, which facilitates talented early-career health and social care professionals to do advanced training.
The work was supervised by Professor Joe Keane, who is a HRB Clinician Scientist Award holder.
The news has been welcomed by HRB Chief Executive Graham Love, who noted that it is the second significant discovery in the area of TB treatment by HRB-funded researchers this week.
On Tuesday a team, also from Trinity College Dublin, revealed that they had discovered that the protein Mal is involved in cell signalling in response to Interferon Gamma, a master chemical in our immune response to illness.
According to the scientists, producing Interferon Gamma sets off a strong immune response when a patient has an infection.
The finding is significant, as it means patients with hard to treat cases of TB can receive targeted treatments personalised to their specific immune system.