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Tuberculosis: The Silent Killer


Tuberculosis: The Silent Killer


Tuberculosis: The Silent Killer

Three SFU professors are part of the world effort to put an end to tuberculosis.

You’ve likely heard of tuberculosis (TB), but you may not be aware that it still one of the deadliest diseases in our world today. The World Health Organization (WHO) earmarks March 24 each year as World Tuberculosis Day, a day to shine light on this infectious bacterial disease that is estimated to kill 1.5 million people each year.

We must remain vigilant if we are to keep this curable disease at bay, by creating new drugs to treat resistant strains and continuing to work for universal access to tuberculosis care. The WHO has called for “intensified global solidarity and action” to help the organization meet its End TB Strategy by 2030. Three notable faculty at SFU are contributing towards this effort.

Fiona Brinkman is an SFU microbiologist and genomics researcher and a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. She is highly regarded as a pioneer in the emerging field of pathogen bioinformatics–the application of computer science to the analysis and interpretation of biological data. Her lab is developing new approaches to better track disease-causing bacteria.

She led a team a few years ago that tracked the origins of a tuberculosis outbreak in a B.C. community. They worked with the BC Centre for Disease Control and were the first researchers to combine the latest techniques of whole bacterial genome analysis with social network analysis. They were able to link the TB outbreak with an increase in crack cocaine use in the town being studied.

Brinkman's current research interests are centered around improving understanding of how microbes evolve and applying this knowledge to develop new diagnostics and therapeutics. For example, she is leading the development of the Integrated Rapid Infectious Disease Analysis (IRIDA) software tool which will facilitate sharing of infectious disease data. Says Brinkman, "The goal is to track microbes better in real-time to enable faster response times and improve control in the case of infectious disease outbreaks.”

Leonid Chindelevitch is an assistant professor in the School of Computing Science, where he uses mathematical modeling and big data to understand and predict the development of infectious disease epidemics. Predictive models, based on factors like the spread of similar diseases in the past, can help public health authorities respond to serious epidemics of TB as well as others such as the Zika virus or Ebola.

“Mathematical and computational modeling efforts can also help narrow down the characteristics an effective vaccine needs to have,” says Chindelevitch. “This is badly needed for TB management right now. Models can also help investigate the mechanisms by which drug resistance in TB is emerging.”

Chindelevitch is particularly interested in how research at the intersection of the sciences, medicine and public policy can improve patient outcomes, especially in low-income populations. Low- and middle-income countries are by far where most cases of TB occur. And, in developed countries like Canada, those living in poverty are most likely to be infected.

Diego Silva is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences specializing in bioethics and public health ethics. He currently works with the WHO on TB ethics. His research includes a project which looks at the ethical challenges associated with new and emerging TB drugs and diagnostics. 

Because TB is a disease associated with poverty, Silva argues that we need to ask questions about the social and political conditions and the poor determinants of health that allow TB to flourish.  By exploring those questions, he hopes to tackle the root causes of the problem and help resolve challenges in present-day TB care.

“Tackling TB will require governments and societies across the globe to acknowledge the extent of the morbidity that stems from TB,” says Silva. “Plus, there needs to be attention toward resolving the inequalities that lead to TB in the first place, whether in Aboriginal communities in Canada or in high burden countries abroad.”


Dr. Fiona Brinkman's expertise in pathogen bioinformatics has led her to develop internationally leading computational tools for analyses of human and microbe responses to infection. She has received multiple awards, including the Young Innovator award from the Innovation and Science Council of BC, the Canadian Society of Microbiologists Fisher Award, Canada’s Top 100 Women from the Women’s Executive Network, a TR100 award from MIT and most recently, was recognized for her publication record as one of Thomson Reuters “World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds: 2014”.

Dr. Leonid Chindelevitch's research interests lie primarily in the modeling of infectious diseases, both on the molecular level (using approaches from computational and systems biology) as well as on the population level (using approaches from epidemiology and biostatistics). He is particularlly interested in the interactions between science, medicine and policy as they relate to improving patient outcomes, especially in low-income, low-resource settings.

Dr. Diego Silva joined SFU in 2015 as Assistant Professor specializing in bioethics and public health ethics. Prior to his appointment at SFU, Diego was a Scientist at the Centre for Research on Inner City Health (CRICH) at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto where he worked with the Gates Foundation on various global health projects.  Most recently, he was part of a project that analyzed the ethics and governance issues related to translational research as a Research Fellow at the Hannover Medical School in Hannover, Germany.