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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Electronic nose sniffs out TB
TB bacteria
The new device can "smell" tuberculosis bacteria
Scientists have developed a device which they claim could save lives by smelling tuberculosis-causing bacteria.

The electronic "nose" invented at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire can produce a reliable result in only four hours.

Current laboratory methods of confirming infection take two days - which the researchers say could make the difference between life and death in some cases.

Approximately three million people worldwide die of TB each year.

In 1997, there were 385 deaths in England and Wales from TB, according to the Public Health Laboratory Service.

Artificial intelligence

The scientists at Cranfield took ideas used by makers of food flavourings, among others, to create sensors that can recognise smells.

Ethiopian TB patient
TB kills thousands in Africa
The sensors use artificial intelligence to identify bacteria in TB cases, as well as other respiratory diseases.

The technique analyses sputum - saliva and mucus - converted into gas form.

Infected sputum contains various acids and other products of infected lung tissue.

Professor Anthony Turner, one of the project leaders, said: "Each of these chemicals is capable of generating unique 'signature odours' when analysed under appropriate conditions."

Health rewards

If the method is developed further it could offer hope and support to patients and health workers worldwide, he said.

"The rewards both socially and financially are immeasurable."

Nose experiment
Scientists have set up an experimental "nose"
Current laboratory methods of analysing sputum can only detect the infectious mycobacteria if it is present in large quantities.

It cannot distinguish between different strains of the bacteria.

To do that can take up to six weeks, with scientists having to grow cultures in a laboratory.

The scientists have proved the system works in laboratory tests.

Now they need funding for field trials and to manufacture equipment.

Growing toll

Clearance has been obtained to collect sputum samples from patients at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital in the UK and the State Centre of Tuberculosis in Latvia.

Research by the British Thoracic Society showed TB cases rose by nearly 20% between 1987 and 1998.

London presently has more cases of the disease than any other large European city, with more than 4,000 diagnoses a year.

See also:

24 Mar 01 | Africa
World fighting growing TB threat
23 Oct 00 | Health
Sharp increase in tuberculosis
14 Dec 99 | Medical notes
Tuberculosis
27 Sep 99 | Sci/Tech
Sniffing out infections
11 Sep 98 | Health
Diagnosis by breath smell
22 Apr 99 | Sci/Tech
Burps to beat ulcers
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