Cometary spectrometer targets tuberculosis
8 October 2007
mass spectrometer system, designed for the analysis of samples of a comet on
the European Space Agency Rosetta mission is being adapted into a
cost-effective, rapid and accurate tool for diagnosing tuberculosis (TB).
The Wellcome Trust has awarded scientists at The Open University and the
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) £1.34 million to
develop the mass spectrometer into a disease-detecting tool.
The disease, which is caused by the M. tuberculosis bacterium, is
thought to kill two million people every year, primarily in the developing
world, and is now on the rise in developed countries. The mass spectrometer
will be capable of detecting TB in samples of sputum much quicker and with a
much greater sensitivity than current methods.
The project was unveiled last week at the University of Manchester’s
Jodrell Bank Observatory as part of celebrations to mark the 50th
anniversary of the launch of Sputnik.
The spectrometer was designed for the Beagle 2 mission to mars and the
Rosetta space mission that will land on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.
The Ptolemy mass spectrometer on board the ESA Rosetta
Source: Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute,
The Open University.
Professor Keith Mason, CEO of the Science and Technology Facilities
Council said, "This provides a clear demonstration of how investment in
space can lead to advances in technologies which have direct benefit to
humankind. It is fantastic to think that technologies that are currently on
their way to a distant comet will be helping people here on Earth."
The research team is led by Dr Geraint "Taff" Morgan and Professor Colin
Pillinger at the Open University, who developed the instrumentation for the
Beagle 2 mission and the Rosetta lander, together with Dr Liz Corbett from
Dr Morgan said: "The thing with developing technology for space missions
is that if forces you to push boundaries and think outside the box when
you're looking for new solutions to challenging problems. Many of the
technical challenges we have overcome in designing our space instruments are
the same as we face with this issue."
At present, TB in resource-poor settings relies mainly on the use of
smear microscopy of sputum samples, a very labour-intensive process with low
Dr Morgan said: "Smear microscopy is not a very accurate way of
diagnosing TB and only detects a third of all positive cases. That means
seven out of ten patients will effectively need to get worse before they can
be diagnosed and treated. Clearly, we need a new solution to this problem.”
Dr Morgan believes that the answer lies with a shoe-box sized gas
chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS), known as Ptolemy, carried by the
Rosetta lander. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft will land on
comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, where it will analyse the chemical
composition of samples from the comet’s nucleus.
"Chemicals have their own unique 'signature'," says Dr Morgan. "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'
The GC-MS is fully automated, so does not require skilled laboratory
technicians or special laboratory facilities. This means that the technology
will be more widely available in the places that need it most.
The Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest medical research charity, funded
development of the original mass spectrometer on the Beagle 2 mission to
Mars. Professor Colin Pillinger, the driving force behind the mission, has
praised the Trust's vision.
"The Wellcome Trust had the foresight to see that the miniaturisation
process needed to develop a mass spectrometer capable of fitting onto a
spacecraft could have applications far closer to home," says Professor
Pillinger. "It is very rewarding to see such vision paying off in clinical
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