(COLLEGE STATION, TX) — Jeffrey D. Cirillo, Ph.D., associate professor of microbial and molecular pathogenesis at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, recently received a $2.14 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – the first Gates Foundation grant awarded to any component of the Texas A&M University System.

The grant from the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program will support Dr. Cirillo’s work on real-time optical imaging and detection of tuberculosis bacteria. He noted the optical imaging technology used in his research has not been previously applied to infectious diseases.

“This technology was first used in cancer research to visualize tumors in their very early stages,” Dr. Cirillo said. “Derived from military technology, a highly sensitive camera is able to detect very small tumors, which are made to produce light through the use of special compounds. Our concept is that the same technology may be able to detect tuberculosis and potentially other infectious diseases.”

As principal investigator for the project, Dr. Cirillo will be working with HSC-COM colleague David McMurray, Ph.D., and James Sacchettini, Ph.D., from HSC-Institute of Biosciences and Technology. Investigators from Texas A&M University, Stanford University School of Medicine and the biotechnology company Caliper Life Sciences also will be involved in the two-year project, which is at an early-stage test of the technology.

“We’re hoping enzymes produced by the tuberculosis bacteria will allow us to administer a substrate that can then specifically react with the bacteria to produce light, which then will be picked up by our cameras,” Dr. Cirillo said.

The optical imaging technology could permit Dr. Cirillo and his colleagues to observe real-time growth of the disease, allowing for accurate analysis of antibiotics and vaccines more quickly. Dr. Cirillo believes some of the findings could be immediately transferable to tuberculosis research, while other findings could lead to more rapid progress in numerous areas of research.

“There have been a few studies attempting to develop this technology for other diseases, but it’s the first time this has been even attempted with tuberculosis,” Dr. Cirillo said. “This is highly sensitive technology that could help improve our ability to detect and diagnose infectious disease.”

Anchored in Bryan-College Station, the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine consists of approximately 800 basic scientists and clinicians who instruct students during the course of their medical education. The HSC-COM is affiliated with clinical facilities across campuses in Bryan-College Station, Temple, Round Rock and Corpus Christi. Scott & White in Temple has the longest history with the College and is ranked as one of the top 15 teaching hospitals in the nation.

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