Navigation Links
Space technology harnessed to search out TB

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

The Wellcome Trust has awarded scientists 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. The project was announced today at the Space 50 celebrations at Jodrell Bank.

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 and the Ptolemy instrument currently on-board the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft.

"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."

Launched in 2004, Rosetta will be the first spacecraft ever to conduct scientific measurements on the surface of a comet. The Rosetta Lander includes a shoe-box sized gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS), known as Ptolemy, which will analyse small pieces of the comets nucleus to identify what it is made from and answer questions about the make up of the early Solar System and whether comets may have been the source of water and the building blocks of life on Earth.

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.

"Chemicals have their own unique 'signature'," says Dr Morgan. "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."

Dr Morgan will work with clinical partners Dr. Liz Corbett and Dr. Ruth McNerney from the LSHTM and Dr Conrad Bessant from the Bioinformatics Group at Cranfield University to optimise and validate the technique. In the second year of its development, the device will be trialled in the field, in Zimbabwe, where Dr Corbett is based.

"We urgently need an accurate and cost effective method of diagnosing TB," says Dr Corbett, a Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Fellow in Tropical Medicine. " At the moment, because diagnosis is not accurate, people with TB may have to be seen up to 10 times before they can be started on TB treatment. They may be infectious throughout this period and, especially if they also have HIV, at considerable risk of dying before their diagnosis is made."

The research was welcomed by Dr Ted Bianco, Director of Technology Transfer at the Wellcome Trust.

"Dr Morgan and his colleagues have important technology to offer in the quest for improved detection of active TB, one of the highest priorities identified by clinicians on the front-line of this health emergency," says Dr Bianco. "Combining their expertise in mass spectrometry with the experience of doctors working in Southern Africa is a potent mix of talent. If you can build instruments rugged enough to look for life elsewhere in the Solar System, you should be able to crack the problem of detecting TB bacteria in the lung of a patient.

The Wellcome Trust funded development of the original mass spectrometer on the Beagle 2 mission to Mars. Professor Colin Pillinger, the driving force behind the mission, has praised the Trust's vision.

"The Wellcome Trust had the foresight to see that the miniaturisation process needed to develop a mass spectrometer capable of fitting onto a spacecraft could have applications far closer to home," says Professor Pillinger. "It is very rewarding to see such vision paying off in clinical research."


Contact: Craig Brierley
Wellcome Trust

Related biology news :

1. Space matters: Estimating species diversity in the fossil record
2. Evolution of life on Earth may hold key to finding life in outer space
3. Saharas edge studied from ground, air and space to improve water management
4. Plants used to detect gas leaks, from outer space!
5. Scientist-astronaut sends T-cells into space
6. Microscopic passengers to hitch ride on space shuttle
7. Sandia work launched on space shuttle shows live cells influence growth of nanostructures
8. Harmful Algal Blooms monitored from space in Chile
9. Researcher to study astronaut bone loss for space biology agency
10. Envisat captures first image of Sargassum from space
11. Novel technology detects human DNA mutations
Post Your Comments:
(Date:10/29/2015)... Connecticut , October 29, 2015 ... a biometric authentication company focused on the growing ... smart wallet announces that StackCommerce, a leading marketplace ... be featuring the Wocket® smart wallet on StackSocial ... NXTD ) ("NXT-ID" or the "Company"), a biometric ...
(Date:10/27/2015)... Synaptics Inc. (NASDAQ: SYNA ), the leader ... adopted the Synaptics ® ClearPad ® Series ... newest flagship smartphones, the Nexus 5X by LG and ... --> --> Synaptics works closely with ... in the joint development of next generation technologies. Together, ...
(Date:10/23/2015)... Research and Markets ( ) has ... Biometrics Market 2015-2019" report to their offering. ... global voice recognition biometrics market to grow at a ... --> --> The report, Global Voice ... an in-depth market analysis with inputs from industry experts. ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:11/24/2015)... - iCo Therapeutics ("iCo" or "the Company") (TSX-V: ICO) ... quarter ended September 30, 2015. Amounts, unless specified ... under International Financial Reporting Standards ("IFRS"). ... Andrew Rae , President & CEO of iCo ... value enriching for this clinical program, but also ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... /PRNewswire/ - Aeterna Zentaris Inc. (NASDAQ:  AEZS) (TSX: AEZ) (the ... the Toronto Stock Exchange, confirms that as of the ... developments that would cause the recent movements in the ... --> About Aeterna Zentaris Inc. ... Aeterna Zentaris is a specialty biopharmaceutical company engaged in ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... ... November 24, 2015 , ... This fall, global software ... events in five states to develop and pitch their BIG ideas to improve health ... state are competing for votes to win the title of SAP's Teen Innovator, an ...
(Date:11/24/2015)... 2015 --> ... released by Transparency Market Research, the global non-invasive prenatal ... of 17.5% during the period between 2014 and 2022. ... Industry Analysis, Size, Volume, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast ... market to reach a valuation of US$2.38 bn by ...
Breaking Biology Technology: