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Welch Foundation supports Johnson-Winters’ TB research

With a $300,000 grant, the Welch Foundation is supporting University of Texas at Arlington research into why some types of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the bacteria that causes the lung disease tuberculosis (TB), do not respond to treatments.

With a $300,000 grant, the Welch Foundation is supporting University of Texas at Arlington research into why some types of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), the bacteria that causes the lung disease tuberculosis (TB), do not respond to treatments.

Since its founding in 1954, the Houston-based Welch Foundation has contributed to the advancement of chemistry through research grants, departmental programs, endowed chairs and other special projects in Texas.

“As one of the nation’s largest private funding sources for chemical research, it is our job to ensure we support the field in a way that advances the field while changing lives,” said Adam Kuspa, president of the foundation. “TB has an enormous impact on society, and I look forward to seeing how Dr. Kayunta Johnson-Winters’ research can help advance our understanding of this dreaded disease.”

Johnson-Winters, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UTA, is leading the project.

“I’m honored that the Welch Foundation sees the value in supporting our research. TB is a global pandemic that is killing about 1.5 million people per year,” Johnson-Winters said. “An estimated 1.8 billion people—about a quarter of the world’s population—are infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Of those carrying the bacterium, about 10% will become ill with the disease, enabling them to infect others.”

Since TB is caused by a bacterium, it can be treated with antibiotics. Infected individuals must take a combination of antibiotics diligently over six to 12 months to stamp out the infection. Patients who stop taking their medications mid-treatment are more likely to see their infection return, only this time, the infection does not respond to treatments.

This new drug-resistant TB can lead to a new infection in the original patient, who can then spread the disease-resistant TB to other people. Drug-resistant TB is much more difficult to treat, often requiring a regimen of a least five medications over 15 to 24 months.

With this new award, Johnson-Winters will study the enzymes within Mtb to understand why they act differently to certain interventions. The grant will also provide resources for additional purification equipment, columns and chemicals needed to further the research. The funds will also support specialized software that will allow researchers to get a better understanding of what is occurring within the enzymes.

“Once we’ve performed our experiments, we will also prepare a library of the mutations to better understand the mechanism of specific enzymes that are targeted for treatment for those hard-to-treat TB disease cases,” Johnson-Winters said.