Simple test for TB

September 19, 2006

Brussels, 18 Sep 2006

A new and simple test for the tuberculosis (TB) infection has been developed by UK scientists. The breakthrough, with a 94 per cent accurate detection rate, will have an important impact on the development of effective treatments and methods to prevent the spread of TB. The test, which examines the unique TB 'biomarkers' in serum or blood samples, will eventually be adapted to even simpler tests which could be used in developing nations, where TB is a more widespread. Current tests rely on technologies left over from the birth of modern medicine - using a microscope to confirm cases. In developing nations, where TB is a far greater threat than in the EU, microscope tests can be as little as 40-60 per cent accurate, and could take a several weeks.

The research, by scientists at the Medical Research Council National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) and at St George's Hospital, University of London, is published in the journal The Lancet.

The TB 'biomarkers' are molecules found only in TB serum, and were found using mass spectrometry and statistical analysis to break down the various compounds making up the TB bacterium and infection into its constituent parts.

Once uncovered, this unique biomarker was used as the basis for a test, but the technique could have applications to find rapid and accurate tests for a variety of other infections. 'Current developments in mass spectrometry together with new statistical methods for pattern discovery are allowing us to identify biomarkers of infection. Our work opens the door to further research into translating these findings to fast and reliable methods of detecting active TB infection that could have a major impact in global health. We currently apply similar approaches to malaria diagnosis,' according to NIMR's Dr Delmiro Fernandez-Reyes.

Early detection of TB is vital in preventing transmission. Recent outbreaks of extreme drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB) have caused considerable concern, as the strain is so difficult to treat. A quick and accurate test would have enabled medical practitioners to intervene sooner, and so curb the spread of the disease.

Professor Sanjeev Krishna of the Centre for Infection at St George's Hospital, University of London said, 'We are putting forward a fresh approach to an ancient problem. I think it is going to be very exciting to make this work in clinics where a test for TB is desperately needed. The next stage will be to use the biomarkers we have identified to develop a cheap, accurate and rapid diagnostic test that can be used easily and quickly out in the field.'

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