Thousands of deaths from tuberculosis (or TB), an infectious bacterial disease, could be prevented using a new hand-held device that is being developed to detect potentially fatal drug resistance in less than 15 minutes.

Presently of all infectious diseases, only HIV that causes AIDS kills more people than TB. In 2012, an estimated 8.6 million people globally developed TB and 1.3 million died from the disease.

The UK reported 8,751 cases of TB in 2012 with most cases occurring in its cities and London, where mobile TB X-ray units have reappeared, with 3,500 cases being reported last year, more than the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, and Greece combined, and also more than some African countries, such as The Gambia and Eritrea.Most cases of TB are curable if treated effectively and promptly and early treatment also prevents the spread of infection.

TB most commonly affects the lungs; although anyone can catch TB if exposed, for most healthy people infection causes no symptoms, but certain people are more vulnerable such as the old or those with weak immune systems.

Currently neither the TB infection itself, nor those people with strains of the disease that are resistant to the most common drugs, can be identified quickly enough for patients to be given a specific prescription without considerable delays.

The World Health Organisation has recently declared the fact that about 3 million people with TB are being missed by health systems across the world as “a public health crisis”. The need for better and faster diagnostic tests to help solve this crisis is globally agreed.

But now British biotech firm QuantuMDx has been awarded a £1m government grant towards developing a new rapid test, called Q-TB™, for diagnosis and drug resistance and will build on expertise from specialists at St George’s University of London and collaboration with South African laboratories.

The test which uses a small cartridge to hold the sputum sample from patients could be used by doctors, nurses and health professionals in developing countries and in cities where TB is seeing a re-emergence. The test will integrate the DNA analysis device with sputum analysing technology and a TB identification system developed by St George’s, University of London and its partners.

Professor Philip Butcher, professor of molecular medical microbiology at St George’s, University of London, said: “A simple, fast and accurate method to diagnose TB is urgently needed to effectively fight the disease and prevent its spread.

“It is a major advantage that this new test will also guide the treatment of patients.”

Dr Jonathan O’Halloran, QuantuMDx’s Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder, said: “The only way we can effectively treat and prevent the spread of MDR-TB is to perform rapid testing at the patients’ side, enabling the immediate prescription of targeted drug treatments”.

“Our robust handheld device is ideal for use in field settings, and is responsive to the addition of hundreds, even thousands, of new diagnostic targets for disease as these are discovered, thus providing a one-stop testing device meeting the testing needs of communities worldwide.”

The UK government’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) awarded the £1million grant to further develop the TB test. QuantuMDx’s is also developing similar systems to detect and diagnose malaria and a tumour profiler.

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