The multi-national network of TB Portals advances tuberculosis research

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The following is a guest post by Jessica Taaffe, PhD

In the current environment of limited tuberculosis research funding, TB research can benefit significantly from data-centric collaborations, as researchers can learn from the work and experiences of others, propelling their own research forward, and they facilitate larger meta-analyses of existing data.

The TB Portals program is an example of one of these research collaborations in TB.  The Program was initiated by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health, with participation from teams in five participating countries (Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, and Azerbaijan) and an aim to collect and consolidate rich data from TB cases, including socioeconomic, clinical, radiological, and genomic information, as a resource for TB researchers and physicians.  The data contained in the cloud-based Portals is anonymized and expert annotated in a user-friendly online and open-access platform that facilitates use for any end-user, regardless of scientific or clinical expertise.

To date, the TB Portals program contains about 860 TB cases, of which about180 are XDR-TB and about 460 are MDR-TB. Many more cases are in the process of being finalized before being made available to the public, and additional cases are being added. Hundreds of bacterial genomes from their linked patient cases were collected by the participating countries, sequenced by program partners, and analyzed for variants associated with drug resistance and treatment outcome. This data, including spoligotyping identification and analysis and lineage information, has been subsequently added back to TB Portals. Image analysis from X-Rays and CT scans is currently being done to identify predictors of treatment outcome, and can be used to develop additional diagnosis approaches. Even more, the wide array of data in the TB Portals are backed by physical repositories of clinical samples in their various countries of origin. Together, they can be considered a catalog of accessible TB patient samples and data, presenting a unique opportunity for more targeted research.

In addition to the query capability that allows for simple searching and detailed viewing of specific cases, the recently developed TB DEPOT tool enables sophisticated search function, data visualization, and statistical analysis among the wide array of data within this unique database.  Physicians can search through the database to identify cases similar to what they treating and learn what regimens have led to treatment success.  Researchers can engage with the database and use its statistical tools to find interesting areas for future investigation.  The database and tool are unique – there is no other TB tool that directly connects and enables engagement and analysis on such broad data for its end-user without the aid of a bioinformatician.

Tools like this have so much potential to aid in improving TB diagnostics, drugs and treatment outcomes. As more research and clinical groups join this collaboration, data contained within the TB Portals program and the analyses that come out of it will become even richer and more valuable.  Importantly, the tool is open-access, which puts valuable information and powerful resources at the fingertips of those who could benefit the most from it, namely researchers and physicians in high-burden TB countries.

For more information on the TB Portals program or if you want to participate as a collaborator, please contact Alex Rosenthal, M.S. M.B.A. (alexr@niaid.nih.gov), NIAID Chief Technology Officer, Office of Cyber Infrastructure and Computational Biology (OCICB).

Jessica Taaffe, PhD (taaffeje@niaid.nih.gov) is a biomedical scientist working in the translation of science into global health policy and practice. She currently is working with the Bioinformatics and Computational Biosciences Branch/OCICB/NIAID on the TB Portals program.

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