Technology developed for the Beagle 2 and Rosetta space missions could soon be harnessed for an inexpensive, fast, and accurate tool for diagnosing tuberculosis (TB).
Scientists at The Open University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) have received a major grant to develop a mass spectrometer capable of detecting TB in countries where resources are poor. The technology would be a vast improvement over the use of smear microscopy of sputum samples, a somewhat spotty and labor-intensive method still used in most of the developing world.
The scientists aim to adapt Rosetta’s so that it will detect TB in sputum with greater sensitivity than smear microscopy and significantly quicker than the alternative culture methods. The process could be automated, which would obviate technicians and make the tool more widely available.
"Chemicals have their own unique ‘signature’," says Geraint Morgan, MD. "The bacterium that causes TB has a special coating and it is the pattern of chemicals in this coating that the mass spectrometer will be ‘searching’ for."
Morgan will work with clinical partners Liz Corbett, MD, and Ruth McNerney, MD, from the LSHTM and Conrad Bessant, MD from the Bioinformatics Group at Cranfield University to optimize and validate the technique. In the second year of its development, the device will be trialed in the field, in Zimbabwe, where Corbett is based.
"At the moment, because diagnosis is not accurate, people with TB may have to be seen up to ten times before they can be started on TB treatment,” says Corbett. “They may be infectious throughout this period and, especially if they also have HIV, at considerable risk of dying before their diagnosis is made."
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