Pathogen genomics used to determine the end of TB outbreak in landmark research

15 June 2016

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Imperial College London have demonstrated how genomic analysis can be used to determine when an outbreak of TB has ended.

The end of a tuberculosis outbreak has always been difficult to discern. The bacterium can lie dormant for years, only to arise again, making it nearly impossible to determine whether an infection is new, or simply the result of latent TB becoming active tuberculosis. Now for the first time, genomic analysis has been used to help determine when an outbreak has run its course.

Building on previous work, the team – led by Jennifer Gardy an assistant professor at UBC’s school of population and public health, and a senior scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control – used a combination of mathematical and statistical techniques in concert with genomic sequencing data to track the infection, allowing them to determine the path of infection, estimate the time of each infection, and pinpoint when the disease stopped spreading. Their findings were presented to the outbreak response team.

The data, once evaluated, showed there had been no new infections since 2012. Combined with corroborating epidemiological evidence, this meant the Health Authority was able to declare the outbreak over.

Last year the PHG Foundation published a report on how to realise the transformative potential of pathogen genomics, pushing the technology from research institutes and laboratories into mainstream national infectious disease services. The important work of Gardy and her team is one example of the potential benefits, and as she says: “It really opens up new doors in the world of TB control”.

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