Newswise — San Antonio, Texas (October 19, 2017) – Understanding how and why elderly people are more susceptible to tuberculosis infection is a research focus of Texas Biomedical Research Institute’s new Vice President for Research (VPR). Joanne Turner, Ph.D., a preeminent scientist in tuberculosis (TB) research, has joined the Texas Biomed team, bringing with her a portfolio of research on the immune system in relation to Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection and aging. Dr. Turner joins Texas Biomed from The Ohio State University (OSU), where she served as a Professor and Biosafety Level 3 Program Director.
As VPR, Dr. Turner will oversee research related support functions, including Environmental Health & Safety, biosafety and select agent compliance. She will serve as the institutional officer for animal care, as well as oversee the library and academic training/faculty development initiatives.
“As an academician, I recognize challenges researchers face and am better able to provide for the support needs of the scientists,” Dr. Turner said. “My job is to make it easier for the scientists to be creative by making sure the facilities run well, people are safe and equipment gets fixed, ensuring scientists have grant support, essentially seeing to it that the support functions for research help drive excellence in our science.”
Dr. Turner is also bringing with her ongoing research studies in TB and aging. She studies the changes that take place in the immune system during the natural aging process and how those changes can influence both short and long-term immune function when infected with M. tuberculosis. She also studies immune responses that correlate with an individual’s susceptibility to reactivate a previously latent infection with M. tuberculosis. Her work has also led her to study mouse models that enable better understanding of immunosuppressive small proteins called cytokines that are critical to immune function.
TB is an infectious disease that kills 1.5 - 2 million people each year. TB disease typically attacks the lungs and can ultimately lead to death if not treated properly. While TB, which is spread through the air, is curable, a person who goes untreated has the potential to infect 10 to 15 new people each year, according to the World Health Organization.
AGING and TB RESEARCH
“As we get older, the immune system is altered; the architecture of the lung changes, ability to cough is reduced; there are all these reasons why the lung doesn’t function as well,” Dr. Turner explained. “We spend a lifetime contracting infections: flu, measles, RSV, the common cold. Every time that happens, we generate an immune response and generate cells that remember these diseases forever. We call those memory T cells or B cells.”
Dr. Turner explained that the body is building a big pool of these memory cells over a lifetime, and if someone is encountering viruses often, they can build up a very large pool of memory cells, thus limiting the pool of cells that can respond to new things.
“If you are a 65-year-old person and someone coughs and infects you with M.tb for the first time, you would struggle to make a good response,” Dr. Turner explained. “This is called primary TB, which the elderly often contracts.”
Another form of TB, called reactivation TB, is one in which a person is affected early in life and the immune system is controlling it, but over time, the immune system wears down and can no longer control the infection.
Her lab studies both these immune responses to M.tb in the context of aging. Her lab looks at how older mice who are infected with M.tb but can control the disease differ from those who can’t control the disease.
“We want to focus on what the elderly does well,” Dr. Turner said.
A secondary study includes collaboration with current Texas Biomed President/CEO Larry S. Schlesinger, MD., and Texas Biomed Scientist Jordi Torrelles, Ph.D., to research inflammation in relation to TB. Inflammation is related to DNA and tissue damage and in response to this damage, cells will start to make inflammatory cytokines. Cells are essentially in a constant state of activation, which makes them prone to then respond incorrectly to infection.
“We want to understand the difference between healthy and infected individuals and their levels of inflammation and its impact on cells,” Dr. Turner said. “My lab spends 80 percent of its time doing mouse modeling to replicate what is happening in humans, so we can try some interventions.”
MOUSE MODEL RESEARCH
Another arm of Dr. Turner’s mouse modeling research focuses on using different genetic mouse strains that can mimic what happens in humans rather than looking at mouse strains that are genetically identical. By doing so, her team discovered a mouse strain that does mimic a critical control mechanism in M.tb infection.
“We study a cytokine called interleukin 10 (IL10), an immunosuppressive cytokine,” Dr. Turner explained. “When you get infected, you switch everything on to control the infection. If you don’t switch it off, you’ll essentially kill yourself with too much inflammation and immune function. IL10 dampens it all down, but some people produce too much IL10 during M.tb infection, which switches off all the good control mechanisms and allows the bacteria to grow.”
Dr. Turner’s lab has a modified mouse that makes too much IL10 and develops active TB. Her team is trying to control the response by removing IL10, which they have done genetically. The team has found that IL10 is important in the initial week of infection and can change the entire long-term effect of the disease; essentially, a person’s immune status on the day of infection will dictate his/her response to the disease.
Her team wants to control the IL10 mechanism to provide long term protection, potentially making a better vaccine, which they are now testing.
Dr. Turner is originally from England. She received her Ph.D. in Immunology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She began her scientific career as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology at Colorado State University, becoming a research assistant professor before moving to The Ohio State University to become an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases. She was at The Ohio State for 13 years, working her way to become a tenured professor.
Dr. Turner is the 2016 recipient of the College of Medicine Center for FAME Distinguished Mentor Award (2016). She received the 2010 Julie Martin Mid-Career Award from the American Federation for Aging Research and the Career Investigator Award from the American Lung Association in 2005. She has held numerous teaching positions for undergraduate through graduate level. She has served as a grant and journal reviewer since 2004.
Dr. Turner has three active NIH grant studies and more than two dozen past project awards from various funding agencies. She has more than 66 papers published and has been invited to more than 20 national and international conferences to speak.
Texas Biomed is one of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions dedicated to advancing health worldwide through innovative biomedical research. Texas Biomed partners with hundreds of researchers and institutions around the world to develop vaccines and therapeutics against viral pathogens causing AIDS, hepatitis, herpes, hemorrhagic fevers and parasitic diseases responsible for malaria and schistosomiasis. The Institute also has programs in the genetics of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, psychiatric disorders and other diseases. For more information on Texas Biomed, go to www.TxBiomed.org.