Research Article: Why Is Long-Term Therapy Required to Cure Tuberculosis?

Date Published: March 20, 2007

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Lynn E Connolly, Paul H Edelstein, Lalita Ramakrishnan

Abstract: The authors argue that understanding and countering general bacterial mechanisms of phenotypic antibiotic resistance may hold the key to reducing the duration of treatment of all recalcitrant bacterial infections, including tuberculosis.

Partial Text: A fundamental problem in the treatment of tuberculosis (TB) is the long duration of therapy required for cure. The recalcitrance of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB) to eradication is thought to result from its achieving a nonreplicating (dormant) state in the host. Because virtually all classes of antibiotics require bacterial replication for their action, the nonreplicating state is thought to render MTB phenotypically resistant to otherwise bactericidal antibiotics.

Soon after the discovery of streptomycin it became clear that while many patients with TB treated with this drug initially improved dramatically, most developed streptomycin-resistant strains so that there was little improvement in mortality over untreated patients [1]. The development of new antibiotics led to the realization that there were two requisites for effective cure: treatment with multiple antibiotics and long therapy [2]. Indeed, the minimum length of treatment and number of drugs required for cure has been more carefully tested for TB than for most infectious diseases (see [3] and Table S1).

A review of TB pathogenesis and pathology will facilitate the assessment of the models proposed for the mechanisms of phenotypic antibiotic resistance of MTB. MTB reaches the alveoli in small, aerosolized particles and is transported into tissues within host macrophages, which aggregate with other immune cells to form granulomas, the hallmark lesion of TB. In immunocompetent individuals, there are two main outcomes of initial infection: the development of active TB or the establishment of a clinically asymptomatic (latent) infection. Active disease is associated with a wide range of granuloma structures [23–25], including bacteria-laden, necrotic (caseating) lesions undergoing central liquefaction and large open cavities. Patients with active disease also harbor lesions in various stages of healing, including closed granulomas with hard, central caseum, and fibrotic and calcified lesions. These latter types of lesions with lower bacterial burdens [23,26] are the only lesion types detected in latent TB [23]. However, the actual physical location of viable bacteria during latent infection remains a topic of considerable debate. In latently infected individuals, viable bacteria or bacterial DNA have been detected outside of granulomas in apparently normal tissue [26,27]. In contrast, immunocompromised (e.g., HIV-infected) individuals tend to develop disease with poorly organized, noncaseating lesions that contain numerous bacteria [28].

The first step in understanding MTB phenotypic drug resistance is to address whether it is mediated by TB-specific mechanisms as has been widely postulated, or by mechanisms common to all bacteria. TB-specific models suggest that environmental conditions in specific granuloma types, in particular those associated with latent disease, induce nonreplicating bacterial populations and thereby antimicrobial resistance [29–33]. This nonreplicating state is thought to be an MTB-specific response to conditions found within closed granulomas such as hypoxia and/or nitric oxide production. According to this model, exposure to these conditions leads to the expression of a discrete set of genes known as the dormancy regulon that are in turn responsible for maintaining the bacilli in the nonreplicating and hence resistant state [29,34–36]. The theory that TB-specific, environmentally induced mechanisms lead to sustained phenotypically drug-resistant bacterial populations has led to an emphasis on understanding specific host environments such as hypoxia and the specific bacterial gene expression programs they induce as a basis for developing drugs that intercept this host–bacterial interface [29–33,35–37].

Another problem with the TB-specific model is that it implicates the lesions that are associated with few bacteria in inducing bacterial phenotypic antibiotic resistance. However, short-course treatment trials for pulmonary TB suggest that the duration of treatment required to prevent relapse of active disease is directly proportional to the organism burden, rather than the predominant type of granuloma microenvironment present (Figures 1 and 2, Table S1). Smear-positive and cavitary disease states are associated with the highest organism burden [12,39] and require the longest duration of therapy to effect cure (Figures 1 and 2). In contrast, both HIV-positive and HIV-negative individuals with latent TB, which is characterized by low bacterial burden, are readily “cured” with single-drug therapy (Table S1). Twelve months of INH therapy in adherent populations with a low risk of reinfection leads to a 92%–93% reduction in the rate of active disease [40,41]. This reduction, using a single drug, is comparable to that seen in treating high-burden, active disease with multidrug therapy, underscoring the importance of bacterial burden as one of the main determinants of successful treatment. The high relapse rate of cavitary disease may also be related to poor penetration of the cavity by antibiotics, due to the dense, fibrous capsule surrounding these lesions [23]. However, some studies have shown that antibiotics do penetrate such lesions [23,38]. This point is underscored by the growth of resistant bacteria from these lesions in the studies described in the previous section [24,25].

The human treatment trial data are most readily explained by a model in which infections characterized by the highest organism burden (be it in cavitary lesions, caseating lesions undergoing liquefaction, or poorly formed noncaseating granulomas typical of advanced HIV coinfection) also have the highest number of phenotypically drug-resistant bacteria. Because high organism burden is associated with phenotypic resistance in other infectious diseases, we propose that the mechanisms are similar in MTB and other pathogenic bacteria. We will describe the possible mechanisms briefly here; for more detailed reviews of specific mechanisms see references [15–17,45,46].

New drugs that target nonreplicating bacteria are likely to revolutionize TB therapy. Such agents have the potential not only to treat MDR and XDR strains but also to dramatically shorten the duration of curative therapy. Shorter treatment times will likely translate into higher patient adherence, reduced transmission, and decreased drug resistance, leading in turn to diminished mortality and substantial gains in tuberculosis control efforts. For example, mathematical models based on the current situation in Southeast Asia estimate that a two month regimen could prevent ~25% of deaths and ~20% of new cases over a 18-year period compared to current treatment regimens [74].



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