Cranfield University tries new approach to TB diagnosis with breath test

29 April 2008

To combat the spiraling rate of infection of Tuberculosis worldwide, scientists at Cranfield University, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, have started research to find new tools and techniques for the rapid diagnosis of the disease. New technology is desperately needed to replace the 100 year old microscope-based test currently used.

The project will look for volatile marker compounds present and absent in patient blood and sputum and cultures of the tuberculosis bacteria. Initial results will be collated using existing technology, then when specific compounds are detected and confirmed, the team will use the results to search for the same markers given off in other volatile gases, such as breath.

The resulting data can be programmed into existing portable devices, such as artificial noses, that can search specifically for TB. The University is also developing a unique hand-held ‘Breathotron’ which will be used to diagnose disease.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has calculated that up to one-third of the world’s population is currently infected with TB, and that it is spreading across Europe and the USA. A lack of education about the contagious airborne disease and failure to take prescription medicines properly has given rise to a number of drug-resistant strains of the disease, which are proving harder to cure.

Existing methods of diagnosis are time consuming, inconvenient and often subject to delay as samples are taken back to laboratories for analysis.

Dr Claire Turner, Head of the Volatiles Research Group, said: “After nearly being eradicated in the developed world in the 1970s, TB is now back. Increased migration and movement of people across the world has helped accelerate this trend and a rapid breath test would be especially useful for testing people at ports, for example, as they enter and leave the country.”

Dr Turner believes that eventually breath, rather than blood or urine will be the most effective, convenient and least invasive method for testing TB and other serious diseases. These tests should also give doctors a more accurate indication of the type of strain of TB, allowing them to prescribe the most appropriate medications, thereby helping to reduce the number of drug resistant strains.

“We have earmarked southern Africa to trial how robust our kit is, but early indications show that a lot more work needs to be done first to find these important compounds. We are seeking further collaboration from other interested parties to help us put our plans into action.”

Dr Ruth McNerney of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “We are in desperate need of new technologies to detect TB disease. The current frontline test that looks for the bacteria in sputum specimens using a microscope was developed over 100 years ago. It is labour intensive and insensitive and less than half of the 9 million new cases of TB each year are successfully diagnosed in this way.

“Volatile analysis can be fast and simple and might be the solution we have been looking for. We are delighted to be working with Cranfield University on this exciting project and are greatly encouraged by the progress so far.”

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