Taking on TB
Walking into Bree Aldridge’s eighth-floor lab at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston is not for the faint of heart. Step one, empty your pockets—phone, wallet, keys. What goes in doesn’t come out—not even the air, and definitely not the lab notebooks, which is why the windows that look onto the hall are littered with Post-it notes of data points. Next comes the first layer of personal protective gear: respirator, gloves, hair cover, safety glasses. Finally, suit up in a pair of white Tyvek coveralls, booties, a second pair of gloves, and sleeve protectors, with tape securing every opening. A red line on the floor marks the point of no return; step over that, and you’re officially ready to start the workday.
“It takes a couple months to get used to how it is, and then it’s sort of like riding a bike,” Aldridge said. Now a ten-year veteran of the process, she can do it in five minutes flat.
The reason for the precautions is that Aldridge and her eight-person lab study tuberculosis. It’s one of the deadliest diseases in the world, responsible for up to one billion deaths over the last 200 years. Researchers can study it only in the confines of what’s called a Biosafety Level-3 laboratory, the same level of biosafety required for anthrax, SARS, and other lethal pathogens.
Aldridge’s BSL-3 lab was built specifically for studying TB—in fact, she is the Tufts University School of Medicine’s first-ever hire in what the school hopes will become an innovative new TB research center. Such investigation is crucial: Besides being among the world’s most prolific and difficult-to-treat killers, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis) can’t be easily studied with traditional microbiology. Even more than a century after its discovery, remarkably little is known about the microbe’s most basic properties, including its behavior, growth, and life cycle.
But Aldridge is no traditional microbiologist—she’s a bioengineer by training, with talents for intense computational modeling and mathematics that have already helped her break at least one new paradigm in the TB field. And now, with an interdisciplinary team of engineers-turned-biologists, and biologists newly trained in heavy computation, she has joined the vanguard in a new era of tuberculosis research, where her contributions could revolutionize how this deadly disease is understood and treated.