The Open University Harnesses Space Technology to Search Out TB

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The Open University explores the use of space technology to aid the diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB).

The thing with developing technology for space missions is that if forces you to push boundaries and think outside the box when you're looking for new solutions to challenging problems. Many of the technical challenges we have overcome in designing our space instruments are the same as we face with this issue.

Technology developed for the Beagle 2 and Rosetta space missions could soon be harnessed by medical research to provide a cost-effective, rapid and accurate tool for diagnosing tuberculosis (TB).

The Wellcome Trust has awarded a science research team at the Open University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) a £1.34 million Strategic Translation Award to develop a mass spectrometer capable of detecting TB in countries where resources are poor.

TB, which is caused by the M. tuberculosis bacterium, is thought to kill two million people every year, primarily in the developing world. However, diagnosing TB in resource-poor settings relies mainly on the use of smear microscopy of sputum samples, a very labour-intensive process with low sensitivity.

Now, researchers led by Dr Geraint "Taff" Morgan and Professor Colin Pillinger at The Open University together with Dr Liz Corbett from the LSHTM have received funding from the Wellcome Trust, the UK's largest medical research charity, to develop a portable mass spectrometer for diagnosing TB. The technology has been developed by the team behind the experiment that was to search for life on Mars during the Beagle 2 mission.

"Smear microscopy is not a very accurate way of diagnosing TB and only detects a third of all positive cases," says Dr Morgan. "That means seven out of ten patients will effectively need to get worse before they can be diagnosed and treated. Clearly, we need a new solution to this problem.

"The thing with developing technology for space missions is that if forces you to push boundaries and think outside the box when you're looking for new solutions to challenging problems. Many of the technical challenges we have overcome in designing our space instruments are the same as we face with this issue."

Dr Morgan believes that they can adapt Rosetta's technology to develop a GC-MS capable of detecting TB in sputum with greater sensitivity than smear microscopy and significantly quicker than the alternative culture methods. The process could be automated, meaning that skilled laboratory technicians would not be needed, and would not need to be carried out in a special laboratory, making the technology more widely available in the places that need it most.

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