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  • 09.03.10

Gates Foundation-Funded Breakthrough TB Test Delivers Results in Minutes, Not Days

The new test could let patients know immediately if they’re infected so they don’t continue to spread tuberculosis while they wait for test results.

new TB test

Tuberculosis, or TB, has a new enemy in the form of a brand new diagnostic tool that reveals, within minutes, if someone is affected by the disease. Affecting large percentages of the developing world–including up to 50% of the population in some countries, such as Nepal–some say the new test will revolutionize health care.

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TB test results used to involve days of testing under a microscope, but this test “requires only 15 minutes of manual labor, for taking the
mucus sample, mixing it with chemicals and putting it in an inkjet-like
cartridge that goes into a machine. The machine amplifies the DNA in
the sample and checks for bits of bacterial genes,” according to a press release.

“What is
revolutionary about this test is that it can diagnose TB the first time a
patient goes to the clinic. Most people who go to the doctor in
developing countries leave not knowing whether or not they have TB.
There’s no excuse for that anymore,” Dr. Peter Small of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which helped fund the development of the new test, tells Fast Company.

Over one thousand patients participated in the trials in Peru,
Azerbaijan, South Africa, and India and test results came back with 98%
accuracy.

“The most commonly used TB test misses half of all
cases, sending patients back into their communities where they can
spread the infection. This test catches almost all of them, with the
added benefit of knowing whether they have certain strains that are drug
resistant. It’s portable, automated and easy-to-use with little to no
training,” Dr. Small says.

The United States government commissioned the study with
several partners and is now seeking U.S. FDA approval, though the test is
already approved and on sale in Europe.

“Now that we know the test works, it needs to be approved by the World
Health Organization’s technical advisory group. The WHO has committed to
making this a top priority, so I’m feeling optimistic that it will be
approved within a few months,” Dr. Small says.

But health care is also subject to the weaknesses of bureaucracies, and
when large, often corrupt governments around the world are involved,
vital life-improving tools often face extensive delays before being put
to use. Let’s hope that a few months is the shortest time span required before the test–offering massive life-saving potential–is delivered to doctors and hospitals in the most desperate regions of the world.

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“Until we have a good TB vaccine, rapid diagnosis equals prevention,” Dr. Small says. “So an effective tool like this one could help change the trajectory of the epidemic.”

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.

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