Texas A&M Researchers Almost Finished with Rapid Tuberculosis Test

By: Michael Oder Email
By: Michael Oder Email

BRYAN It killed over one million people last year. Tuberculosis is second only to HIV/AIDS in the number of deaths from a single infectious agent.

Hundreds still die each year in the U.S. from the disease. A device created at Texas A&M's Health Science Center could have a global impact on the fight against TB.

Close to 100,000 people in the United States have Tuberculosis. In the state of Texas, that number is around 9,000. Around the globe, a third of the world's population is infected. It's so deadly, that every minute a child dies from TB. A professor at Texas A&M says that could all change thanks to a new way to screen for the infection.

"We could potentially prevent additional people from getting sick, which breaks the chain, and allows for potential irradiation of TB which has never been possible before," explains Dr. Jeffrey Cirillo,"That's when I got excited about it."

He laughs, but only about the idea of stopping TB. He knows there is nothing funny about the deadly infection. The bacteria infection affects the lungs and other organs. After 28 years studying TB, he's found a way to radically change the diagnosis process.

In a fourth floor lab at Texas A&M's Health Science Center, off Highway 47, sits a small black box. Nothing particularly fancy about the design, but it's impact will reach far beyond Bryan/College Station. This small box can detect tuberculosis in minutes. Current methods of identifying patients with TB takes months to confirm.

"Normally, we do a ten minute read. We give it a little bit of time, but that's it," says Cirillo. It's simple. Take a sample, treat it with a solution and put it inside the reader. A camera inside looks for a reaction between the sample and solution that produces light.

No light. No infection.

Cirillo says they went through about 50 different systems before finding the one that would work with tuberculosis bacteria anywhere in the world.

"That first clinic visit, that's when we want a diagnosis," says Cirillo. He claims his device should be able to do that. In the future, it should allow doctors to begin treating patients with medicine that's targeted to their specific illness, instead of just prescribing generic antibiotics or misdiagnosing.

"They're already on treatment so their not transmitting. That's how we would break the chain," says Cirillo.

Testing for Tuberculosis now requires either a skilled microscopist or growing the bacteria in a lab culture. Both can take months of infection before the disease is diagnosed. Cirillo's device can almost match that.

"85 percent of those cases that would come up positive by culture, we're able to pick up with this test in about 30 minutes, 40 minutes. So, that's really exciting and that's really what we want," says Cirillo.

Despite the accuracy, Doctor Cirillo isn't jumping at the chance to call this the future.

"The science behind it is so extensive, so I really do believe it's solid, but I'm a skeptic," he laughs. His work now focuses on fixing problems and improving the process. Something he says there's still a lot left to do.

Dr. Cirillo says the end goal is seeing these devices being carried by nurses into small villages around the world and testing patients on the spot. Right now, the device is about 18-months away from being put out in the world to treat patients.

It's also being priced to be affordable to any organization. The two traditional methods of testing for TB are expensive. Some of them even run into the thousands-of-dollars. The equipment is also pretty costly. A recently FDA-approved model costs $20,000. Both methods are slow and not easily transported to remote regions.

Dr. Cirillo's device is priced under $500, can be batter operated and has almost no moving parts. It drastically undercuts all methods currently being used.

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