University of Otago postdoctoral research fellow Dr Htin Lin Aung (left) and visiting medical practitioner Dr Thanda Tun, at a university laboratory. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
New Zealand cannot afford to be complacent about high levels
of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis in many Asia-Pacific
countries, including China and Burma, Prof Greg Cook says.
Prof Cook, of the University of Otago microbiology and
immunology department, is working closely with medical
researchers in Burma to find more effective ways to diagnose
and treat multi-drug-resistant Tb in that country.
New Zealand's Tb level was only a tiny fraction of that in
Burma, he said.
But most of the new cases encountered in New Zealand were
among people who had travelled from Asian countries or the
It was clearly in New Zealand's best interests to counter
drug-resistant Tb in other countries, in order to avoid being
adversely affected by visitors or immigrants with
antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease.
The first case of extensive drug-resistant tuberculosis in
New Zealand occurred in Dunedin in 2010, and had involved a
man who had migrated from Burma. He had survived after a
lengthy treatment, including the use of antibiotics specially
imported from the United States.
Dr Thanda Tun, a PhD student from a leading medical
university in Burma, left Dunedin recently after spending 10
weeks working with an Otago University postdoctoral research
fellow, Dr Htin Lin Aung, who was also born in Burma, and
with Prof Cook.
She was studying multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis from Burma
Current antibiotics often target the bacterial cell wall, and
protein and DNA synthesis, but Prof Cook's research team has
developed potential new antibiotics that target the energy
source within bacteria.
Prof Cook this month received a $150,000 Health Research
Council grant to continue development work on such drugs,
which could help doctors keep pace with the growing problem
of antibiotic resistance.
Prof Cook said overall rates of Tb, and of drug-resistant Tb,
in Burma were high, and doctors there faced a ''terrible''
reality with some current diagnostic technology.
Conventional microbiological testing to determine if a
patient had a strain of drug-resistant Tb could take up to
But many patients with both Tb and HIV would die in less than
a month without receiving effective drug treatment.
Prof Cook is working with scientists such as Dr Tun to
develop a more modern genomic analytic kit which could
identify drug-resistant organisms much more quickly than
previously, and help deliver more effective drug therapies.
The researchers are also working in partnership with Prof
John Crump and Prof Philip Hill at Otago University's Centre
for International Health.
Otago University and the University of Medicine (1) in Burma
formed an international academic partnership in late 2012.