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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 October 2007, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Space technology to hunt down TB
Artist's impression of what Beagle should have looked like on Mars
The technology was sent to Mars on the Beagle 2 lander
A device developed for a mission to Mars could help spot signs of life closer to home - by identifying the bacterium that causes TB.

The Open University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine project will use a tiny detection kit made for the Beagle 2 project.

The gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS) can pick out the unique chemical fingerprint of TB.

An expert hoped it would boost the poor diagnosis rate in developing countries.

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
Dr Ted Bianco
Wellcome Trust

Space researchers were disappointed by the failure of Beagle 2, which is believed to have been destroyed as it tried to land on Mars in 2003.

A similar device to that on Beagle now forms part of the current Rosetta mission, which aims to rendezvous with a comet and send back data on its chemical structure.

The need to minimise its weight has led to a spectrometer the size of a shoebox, which could now be practical to use in developing countries where TB is rife.

Unreliable test

At the moment, phlegm samples coughed up by patients suspected of having the disease are checked under a microscope, but this is unreliable and fails to diagnose up to half the active cases.

We urgently need an accurate and cost-effective method of diagnosing TB
Dr Liz Corbett, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Dr Liz Corbett, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "We urgently need an accurate and cost-effective method of diagnosing TB.

"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."

Dr Geraint Morgan from the Open University said that GC-MS could be a more accurate test, and significantly quicker than current methods.

He said: "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."

Active difference

The Wellcome Trust has provided a 1.34m grant to see if the technology works.

Its Director of Technology Transfer, Dr Ted Bianco, suggested that the device could potentially discriminate between the high numbers of people with latent TB, who simply carry the bacteria without having symptoms or being infectious, and those with "active TB", who can die from it or pass it to others.

"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."

Dr Peter Davies, secretary of TB Alert, and a member of the diagnostics group of the Stop TB international campaign, welcomed the project.

He said: "We can only diagnose 50% of people using current techniques, so we have got to try any other method of diagnosis that we can.

"This could be a way of improving that low figure, so it's definitely worth a shot."



SEE ALSO
New image finds no Beagle traces
16 Feb 07 |  Science/Nature
Drive to curb drug-resistant TB
22 Jun 07 |  Health
Trials start on new TB vaccine
28 Jul 07 |  Health
Tuberculosis
08 Feb 03 |  Medical notes

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