It was recently reported in the scientific journal, BMC Infectious Diseases, that a breathalyzer which analyzes a person’s breath for tuberculosis antigens can predict, with a certain degree of accuracy, whether a person has tuberculosis or not. Though it has been known for decades that tuberculosis is passed via “air borne droplets” from one person to the next, this is the first time that doctors have been able to actually monitor the infectivity of a given patient.
Definitive diagnosis of tuberculosis in the United States includes the culture of sputum from patients suspected of having the condition. However, poor countries such as Ethiopia can not make use of time consuming and expensive sputum cultures.
In resource poor settings, where cultures of sputum from suspected TB patients would be impractical, a quick laboratory test called the sputum AFB smear for TB bacteria is used, however, this test is not perfect. By combining the sputum smear with the breathalyzer test, a higher degree of sensitivity in the diagnosis of TB could possibly be achieved, perhaps as high as 94%. If these TB breathalyzer machines, which detect proteins made by the TB bacteria, can be mass produced, it could revolutionize how TB is diagnosed and monitored. Especially if the sensitivity of the machines is improved upon.
Another advance in the diagnosis of TB in resource settings is the recent invention of a cheap fluorescent microscope which costs $240 dollars and is portable, but which costs much less than models which cost more than $40,000 and are not mobile. The use of such a microscope to evaluate sputum smears for the presence of the TB bacteria could help researchers to bring more timely and efficient care to TB patients in remote areas of the developing world.
These two inventions could do much to help the developing world cope with the global TB pandemic which is claims the lives of millions of people each year. Though most cases of tuberculosis are treatable with medications, the emergence of more difficult to treat strains of the TB bacteria has threatened to turn back the clock on the care of TB patients. The long term solution for the global TB pandemic would involve the use of such mobile TB diagnosis machines as the breathalyzer and portable fluorescent microscope.
To read an article I wrote on XXDR TB, or extremely drug resistant tuberculosis, click here.
BMC Infectious Diseases 2010, 10:161doi:10.1186/1471-2334-10-161