TB bugs him: Microbe hunter retires to Onchiota

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Ian Orme, recently honored for his groundbreaking studies of tuberculosis, sits in the Blue Moon Cafe in Saranac Lake Wednesday.
(Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

Ian Orme, recently honored for his groundbreaking studies of tuberculosis, sits in the Blue Moon Cafe in Saranac Lake Wednesday. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

SARANAC LAKE — Ian Orme has spent a lifetime fighting tuberculosis, and now the professor recently named a “Pillar of Immunology” has moved to “the great metropolis of Onchiota,” as he put it, where his primary goal is to improve his golf game.

At least, that’s his story. The Journal of Immunology honored Orme this August in its “Pillars of Immunology” series, in which it republishes articles that had major impact on how diseases are understood and treated.

“This is a tremendous honor for me, and an honor for Trudeau Institute as well,” said Orme. “They started my career; they gave me the facilities to do the work.”

However, a mere five minutes in Orme’s presence makes it clear he’s not the retiring type.

“That’s what my boss said,” Orme admits wryly. Colorado State University, where Orme helped establish a world-class TB-fighting lab, has rehired Orme with a 40 percent workload. Orme continues to write scholarly articles in his field.

“I’ve got a few articles due this month,” said Orme. “So I’m still an annoying person.”

Born near London, Orme went to university on a scholarship. Although his earliest dream was to play rugby, he ended up studying tuberculosis. After he obtained his Ph.D, Orme went on a Greyhound bus tour of America.

“They said, the place you should go is Trudeau [Institute],” said Orme. So he visited Saranac Lake, gave a talk at the institute, and “when I got home, I had three job offers. One was from Trudeau.”

He began in 1981, working with the late Frank Collins on mycobacterial infections. It was at Trudeau, he said, that he learned how to grow the highly infectious tuberculosis bacteria safely, and where he was able to open a Level 3 (infection control) unit to study the disease.

It’s also where he met his wife, Eileen, an operating room nurse at the hospital in Saranac Lake. In 1986 he was offered a job at Colorado State University, where in 1998 he co-founded CSU’s Mycobacteria Research Laboratories, which has become the premier facility for studying TB in the world.

Colorado, like Saranac Lake, was once a sanctuary for thousands of tuberculosis sufferers, drawn to the health-giving effects of its climate. Many of Colorado’s top hospitals began as tuberculosis sanatoriums.

“CSU was very generous,” said Orme. “Their facilities are world-class, which in turn attracted a lot of people.”

In the paper that the Journal of Immunology republished, Orme’s final article while he was working at Trudeau, he found two major series of antibodies, and “I tripped over this third response, what we now call memory T-cells. Those are the ones that you want to fatten up with vaccines.”

T-cells are part of the body’s disease-fighting mechanism; the memory T-cells “remember” how to fight diseases once they’ve been exposed to them.

Orme challenged the notion of “latent TB,” or tuberculosis cells that go dormant after entering the body.

“What I’ve shown is that these organisms are forming a biofilm around them, that protects them from the immune system response,” he said. Rather than being knocked out by the immune system, the bacterium are essentially in jail. “They’re waiting; they’re captured.”

While tuberculosis remains part of Saranac Lake’s storied past, the disease has resurged in recent decades. New strains of drug-resistant TB now comprise more than half of the world’s cases. Tuberculosis kills over a million people worldwide every year. In Sub-Saharan Africa, India and China, “It’s going through the roof,” said Orme. “We sort of hoped these drug-resistant strains would be low virulence, but they were just as virulent. Vaccines don’t work; drugs don’t work. It’s pretty depressing. It’s gone past HIV as the leading cause of death by infectious disease.”

“What worries me most is the funding environment,” said Orme. “The [presidential] administration wants to cut the [National Institutes of Health] budget by 21 percent. That’ll cut the legs off it. The number of labs that can work safely with TB is cut down. … There’s no one left to do this stuff.”

Meanwhile, Orme is pleased with the success of his students and research assistants, many of whom have gone on to become full professors around the world. He’s working on his golf game, which he characterized as “crappy,” at the Saranac Lake Golf Club in Ray Brook.

“It’s an impossible course,” he said. “I don’t know why I torture myself.”