GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A team of researchers at Central Michigan University is working to diagnose tuberculosis infections faster with a new test.
Ben Swarts, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has been working on the project for more than a decade. He believes it could save a lot of lives, even if people in first-world countries view TB as a “relic of the past.”
“It is still a widespread and devastating disease,” Swarts told News 8, “and although we don’t hear much about TB in the U.S. because it has mostly been eradicated here and in other wealthy parts of the world, it is still a major burden for low-resource countries.”
The National Institutes of Health considers tuberculosis to be the world’s leading cause of death from an “infectious agent.” According to the World Health Organization, more than 10 million people contract TB each year and roughly 1.5 million people die each year from tuberculosis infections — an average of more than 4,000 deaths each day.
But more than that, experts are seeing more and more cases of drug-resistant TB.
“Drug-resistant TB is extremely challenging to treat and could pose a broader threat in the future if it’s not properly controlled,” Swarts said.
Swarts said the main two problems now are speed and determining whether the TB infection is drug-resistant or drug-susceptible. The new tests his team designed tackle both problems.
“Right now, diagnosis mainly relies on culture tests, which are quite slow,” he said. “They can take weeks, sometimes over a month to give a result, and that’s a critical problem because it delays decisions that are needed for proper treatment of the disease. So what we set out to do in this project was to develop a more rapid TB test that can also simultaneously screen for drug resistance.”
The new test doesn’t rely on cultures. It uses a synthesized compound that Swarts calls a “Trojan horse.”
“It is designed to sneak its way into the TB bacteria. And when it arrives, it shoots up a flare that we can see,” he said. “This compound consists of two key elements. One part of the compound contains a unique sugar called trehalose that these particular bacteria like to metabolize or eat. … The other part of the molecule contains a dye that gives off a fluorescent signal that we can easily detect.”
While culture tests can take weeks or even longer than a month to come back positive, the chemical probe test can yield a positive result in less than 24 hours.
So far, the chemical probe tests have been used successfully on simplified samples in a controlled lab. The next step is to experiment with them in actual patient samples, which Swarts says is “significantly more complex.”
“We’re working in my lab and we’re collaborating with a number of other researchers here in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world to further explore the potential of the technology,” he said.