Tuberculosis Xray Researchers in India have identified a protein in the tuberculosis bacteria which weakens the body’s immune system, according to media reports Wednesday. Their work has been published in the latest issue of the journal, Nature Immunology.

The research team led by senior researchers Joyoti Basu and Manikuntala Kundu, all from the Bose Institute, took two years of vigorous experimentation to isolate the protein and study its influence on receptor molecules.

The protein, Early Secreted Antigen 6 (or ESAT6), binds itself onto receptors called TLR2 on the surface of macrophages, a type of white blood cell that attacks invading viruses and bacteria.

This hinders the macrophage from producing “cytokines” — proteins released by the cells of immunity system to kill the TB bacterium.

By knowing what the TB protein can do, the scientists hope to find another cure for treating the disease. The protein may also be harnessed to stop diseases which are caused by inflammation going out of control, such as hay fever, rheumatoid arthritis and atherosclerosis.

Around 1.6 million people die from TB each year, making tuberculosis the deadliest infectious disease on the planet after AIDS and ahead of malaria, according to the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO).

However, only one in 10 infected persons will develop symptoms and that usually happens when their immune systems are weak. Left untreated, TB, or Mycobacterium TB, kills half its victims.