The Fast Fight against TB

September 21st, 2010 by Jenara Nerenberg

A new test and breakthrough in fighting tuberculosis.

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The Responsibility Project

Tuberculosis, or TB, has a new enemy in the form of a brand new diagnostic tool that reveals, within minutes, if someone is affected by the disease. Affecting large percentages of the developing world--including up to 50% of the population in some countries, such as Nepal--some say the new test will revolutionize health care.

TB test results used to involve days of testing under a microscope, but this test "requires only 15 minutes of manual labor, for taking the mucus sample, mixing it with chemicals and putting it in an inkjet-like cartridge that goes into a machine. The machine amplifies the DNA in the sample and checks for bits of bacterial genes," according to a press release.

"What is revolutionary about this test is that it can diagnose TB the first time a patient goes to the clinic. Most people who go to the doctor in developing countries leave not knowing whether or not they have TB. There’s no excuse for that anymore," Dr. Peter Small of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the development of the new test, tells Fast Company.

Over one thousand patients participated in the trials in Peru, Azerbaijan, South Africa, and India and test results came back with 98% accuracy.

"The most commonly used TB test misses half of all cases, sending patients back into their communities where they can spread the infection. This test catches almost all of them, with the added benefit of knowing whether they have certain strains that are drug resistant. It’s portable, automated and easy-to-use with little to no training," Dr. Small says.

The United States government commissioned the study with several partners and is now seeking U.S. FDA approval, though the test is already approved and on sale in Europe.

"Now that we know the test works, it needs to be approved by the World Health Organization’s technical advisory group. The WHO has committed to making this a top priority, so I’m feeling optimistic that it will be approved within a few months," Dr. Small says.

But health care is also subject to the weaknesses of bureaucracies, and when large, often corrupt governments around the world are involved, vital life-improving tools often face extensive delays before being put to use. Let's hope that a few months is the shortest time span required before the test--offering massive life-saving potential--is delivered to doctors and hospitals in the most desperate regions of the world.

"Until we have a good TB vaccine, rapid diagnosis equals prevention," Dr. Small says. "So an effective tool like this one could help change the trajectory of the epidemic."