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Harnessing biological insight to accelerate tuberculosis drug discovery

de Wet, T.J
Warner, D.F
Mizrahi, V
Tuberculosis (TB) is the leading cause of mortality globally resulting from an infectious disease, killing almost 1.6 million people annually and accounting for approximately 30% of deaths attributed to antimicrobial resistance (AMR). This despite the widespread administration of a neonatal vaccine, and the availability of an effective combination drug therapy against the causative agent, Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb). Instead, TB prevalence worldwide is characterized by high-burden regions in which co-epidemics, such as HIV, and social and economic factors, undermine efforts to control TB. These elements additionally ensure conditions that favor the emergence of drug-resistant Mtb strains, which further threaten prospects for future TB control. To address this challenge, significant resources have been invested in developing a TB drug pipeline, an initiative given impetus by the recent regulatory approval of two new anti-TB drugs. However, both drugs have been reserved for drug-resistant disease, and the seeming inevitability of new resistance plus the recognized need to shorten the duration of chemotherapy demands continual replenishment of the pipeline with high-quality “hits” with novel mechanisms of action. This represents a massive challenge, which has been undermined by key gaps in our understanding of Mtb physiology and metabolism, especially during host infection. Whereas drug discovery for other bacterial infections can rely on predictive in vitro assays and animal models, for Mtb, inherent metabolic flexibility and uncertainties about the nutrients available to infecting bacilli in different host (micro)environments instead requires educated predictions or demonstrations of efficacy in animal models of arguable relevance to human disease. Even microbiological methods for enumeration of viable mycobacterial cells are fraught with complication. Our research has focused on elucidating those aspects of mycobacterial metabolism that contribute to the robustness of the bacillus to host immunological defenses and applied antibiotics and that, possibly, drive the emergence of drug resistance. This work has identified a handful of metabolic pathways that appear vulnerable to antibiotic targeting. Those highlighted, here, include the inter-related functions of pantothenate and coenzyme A biosynthesis and recycling and nucleotide metabolism—the last of which reinforces our view that DNA metabolism constitutes an under-explored area for new TB drug development. Although nonessential functions have traditionally been deprioritized for antibiotic development, a common theme emerging from this work is that these very functions might represent attractive targets because of the potential to cripple mechanisms critical to bacillary survival under stress (for example, the RelMtb-dependent stringent response) or to adaptability under unfavorable, potentially lethal, conditions including antibiotic therapy (for example, DnaE2-dependent SOS mutagenesis). The bar, however, is high: demonstrating convincingly the likely efficacy of this strategy will require innovative models of human TB disease. In the concluding section, we focus on the need for improved techniques to elucidate mycobacterial metabolism during infection and its impact on disease outcomes. Here, we argue that developments in other fields suggest the potential to break through this barrier by harnessing chemical-biology approaches in tandem with the most advanced technologies. As researchers based in a high-burden country, we are impelled to continue participating in this important endeavor.
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de Wet TJ, Warner DF, Mizrahi V. Harnessing biological insight to accelerate tuberculosis drug discovery. Accounts of Chemical Research. 2019 Aug 20;52(8):2340-2348. doi: 10.1021/acs.accounts.9b00275
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