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Technology developed to reveal the secrets of space is being tested as a method of detecting tuberculosis (TB).

The project, led by the UK-based Open University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), received a £1.34 million (US$2.7 million) award from UK medical research charity The Wellcome Trust today (4 October).

The project is part of the charity's technology transfer programme.

The researchers aim to develop a small, portable mass spectrometry device that can be used to detect TB in resource-poor settings.

"The application [of this technology] is especially exciting because a lack of sensitive and point-of-care test for diagnosing TB is one of the major barriers to improving global TB control," says Liz Corbett, a reader in tropical and infectious diseases from LSHTM, based at the Biomedical Research and Training Institute in Harare, Zimbabwe.

TB is usually diagnosed by looking at a sputum smear under a microscope. But this method is labour-intensive and misses about two thirds of positive cases.

The mass spectrometry technology has already been developed and miniaturised for Beagle 2 — a mission to search for life on Mars — and the Ptolemy instrument, which will analyse the composition of comets.

"Chemicals have their own 'signature'," lead researcher Geraint Morgan of the Open University said in a press release. "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' for."

The technique has already yielded promising results in tests on non-pathogenic relatives of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB, Corbett told SciDev.Net.

The device will next be tested and optimised starting in late 2007 or early 2008 using TB patients' specimens in the United Kingdom. Two miniature mass spectrometers will be moved to Zimbabwe in the second year of the project so that large-scale field trials can be carried out.

Most other diagnostics for TB currently being developed focus on simplicity and rapid results rather than sensitivity, says Corbett.

The clinical evaluation will attempt to identify a diagnostic method that is as simple and safe as sputum smear microscopy and more sensitive, she says.

A more sensitive test, or one that is equally sensitive but could give results on the same day, could remove the lengthy waiting times and the repeated testing many TB patients have to endure before they are diagnosed, Corbett added.