Researchers aim to detect tuberculosis sooner as drug-resistant strains develop

A doctor points to an x-ray showing a pair of lungs infected with TB (tuberculosis). (REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)

A doctor points to an x-ray showing a pair of lungs infected with TB (tuberculosis). (REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)

As U.S. health officials treat an Indian woman who entered the country with drug-resistant tuberculosis, scientists at Texas A&M Health Science Center are trying to develop faster and more accurate ways to diagnose the infectious disease. 

The timely detection of TB remains one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with the condition. The main symptoms, like long-lasting cough and fever, are common to other illnesses. The bacteria are also slow-growing. That’s why patients with TB often aren’t diagnosed until they’ve had the infection for many months, risking infecting others. The increase in drug-resistant versions of the bug adds to the urgency in detecting TB more quickly.

Researchers, such as Jeff Cirillo and colleagues at the Texas A&M facility in Bryan, Texas, are working on faster, cheaper diagnosis alternatives. They have developed a test that signals when enzymes produced only by TB bacteria are present, whittling the process to just 10 minutes from several days. They now are studying how it could be used to determine drug-resistance as well.

“The challenge is absolutely the diagnosis,” says Andrew Steenhoff, a pediatrics professor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and TB specialist.

Tuberculosis can affect any organ in the body, but the most common—and most important, from a public-health perspective—is the lungs. TB isn’t as contagious as many other infectious diseases, like measles, but it is a particular concern for children and people with weakened immune systems. The bacteria are transmitted through the air, and infection occurs after spending significant time in a confined space. Transmission in public places, including airplanes, is unlikely but possible, Dr. Steenhoff says.

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