SAN ANTONIO (September 3, 2021) – Associate Professor Smriti Mehra, Ph.D., is on the trail of a killer: tuberculosis (TB) – the world’s leading cause of death by an infectious organism. She is seeking to understand how TB evades the body’s immune system, hiding in the lungs often for decades, before becoming active and causing serious illness.
“The human immune system should protect us from all bacteria and viruses, so how is TB persisting inside the lungs and our immune system is not able to kill it?” asks Dr. Mehra, who joined the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (Texas Biomed) faculty in August 2021.
Along with clarifying these basic mechanisms, Dr. Mehra is also investigating vaccines and therapies to help prevent and treat tuberculosis infection, which is caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) bacteria.
“Right now, the TB field is at a standstill; most vaccine candidates that go to clinical trial don’t work, and TB has become extremely resistant to multiple drugs currently available,” she says. “We are working to develop a more effective vaccine as well as host directed therapies that can help drugs fight off infection.”
Dr. Mehra says she is excited to join Texas Biomed, which offers biocontainment safety level-3 laboratories, which are needed to study airborne infectious agents like TB, and hosts the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC), which houses rhesus macaques, among other nonhuman primates. Macaques play an essential role in studying TB, treatments and vaccines due to their similarities to humans. Dr. Mehra is also looking forward to working in San Antonio and tapping into the extensive biomedical network throughout the region.
“The health science community in San Antonio is very strong,” Dr. Mehra says. “There are many opportunities for collaboration.”
A molecular and microbiologist, Dr. Mehra has been researching tuberculosis since 2006, when she joined the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Louisiana. There, she worked with Dr. Deepak Kaushal and colleagues to establish animal models for tuberculosis that closely mimic human route of infection, which is through the air. They standardized the methods for aerosol exposure to generate either active or latent infection. Dr. Kaushal now directs SNPRC and collaborates with Dr. Mehra regularly.
“Texas Biomed and SNPRC are among the leading places in the world for tuberculosis research,” says Professor Joanne Turner, Ph.D., Texas Biomed’s Executive Vice President, Research. “We have several excellent principal investigators focused on TB and having Dr. Mehra join our team helps super-charge the possibilities for synergies and collaborations.”
Dr. Mehra grew up in New Delhi, India. Always interested in math and biology, she was inspired to pursue science as a career by her father, who was a plant geneticist. “Growing up, I saw him going to the lab, talking to students, attending meetings, writing publications and talking to people about science,” Dr. Mehra says. “My interest in science really stemmed from there.”
She studied biochemistry at the University of Delhi, and earned her Ph.D. in genetics. She initially focused on plant genetics, working to develop heartier hybrids, such as herbicide-resistant mustard plants and cold-resistant blueberries. However, she was good friends with TB researchers and followed the field, and so was happy to transition into biomedical research when the opportunity arose.
Currently, Dr. Mehra has several grants from the National Institutes of Health to study tuberculosis, including co-infection studies with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the nonhuman primate equivalent of HIV. She is collaborating with William R. Bishai, M.D., Ph.D., at Johns Hopkins University to test altered versions of the one approved TB vaccine, to see if any provide longer-lasting protection. She is also looking at the IDO pathway, which is inhibited as part of cancer treatments to improve the body’s immune response and shrink tumors, to see if it can also help fight off TB infection.
“We’ve had success lowering TB burden after IDO inhibition in active TB, and now we are investigating the effect of inhibiting IDO in latent infection,” Dr. Mehra says. “If we can identify a host directed therapy or an improved vaccine, that would be very rewarding. But it is not an easy path, it will take time.”
ABOUT TEXAS BIOMED
Texas Biomed is one of the world’s leading independent biomedical research institutions dedicated to eradicating infection and advancing health worldwide through innovative biomedical research. Texas Biomed partners with researchers and institutions around the world to develop vaccines and therapeutics against viral pathogens causing AIDS, hepatitis, hemorrhagic fever, tuberculosis and parasitic diseases responsible for malaria and schistosomiasis disease. The Institute has programs in host-pathogen interaction, disease intervention and prevention, and population health to understand the links between infectious diseases and other diseases such as aging, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. For more information on Texas Biomed, go to www.TxBiomed.org.