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Better and cheaper tests for tuberculosis are badly needed in developing countries, where there is a large and relatively untapped market for them, says the World Health Organization.

The UN health agency called for industry investment in better tuberculosis (TB) testing methods in a report published this week (25 October), stressing the impressive market available for these diagnostic tests in developing countries.

Many of the deaths caused by TB in the developing world are due to wrong or late diagnosis. The most widely used method is where some sputum from a patient's lung is examined under a microsope to look for the bacteria that cause TB. Yet this test has only 40-60 per cent accuracy under field conditions, falling to 20 per cent when patients are also infected with HIV.

The technology needed to create more accurate and cheaper tests already exists, however, and new tests could easily be developed with funding, says the report.

Above all, there is a great need for tests that can detect latent TB and identify people at high risk of developing the active disease, which kills some 1.7 million people every year.

Today's newest and most sophisticated techniques for TB detection require sophisticated laboratory equipment that is too costly for poor countries.

"[The real impediment] is the cost," says TB specialist Paul van Helden director of Stellenbosch University's Centre for Molecular and Cellular Biology in South Africa .  "We have to move past the mindset that if the diagnostic is more expensive than [sputum] smear, we cannot afford it." 

According to the report, the global market for TB diagnostics is US$1 billion each year — more than twice what is spent globally on drugs used to treat the disease.

"I think this report will have a tremendous impact," says Giorgio Roscigno, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, which helped produce the report.

"The industries will see that there is a real market out there, and that it is not a loss to invest in TB diagnostics," he told SciDev.Net.

The report also offers help for industries to find partnerships that could help them in developing new tools and sharing the costs.

According to Roscigno, the lack of knowledge in industry about the global market for TB diagnostics was one of the reasons behind the limited funding for exploring new tests.