Tackling TB: the world’s most deadly infection
Every year millions of people across the world fall ill with tuberculosis (TB), a bacterial infection that gains access through the lungs. The disease is partially preventable through vaccination and treatable with antibiotics, yet each year it affects up to 6,000 people in the UK and more than 10 million people worldwide. With 1.5 million TB deaths recorded annually it is the largest infectious cause of death globally.
Although TB is found all over the world, the majority of people who contract it live in low- or middle- income countries; with approximately half of all patients found in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines and South Africa. The disease is the leading cause of death of people with HIV, and as it requires lengthy treatments with antibiotics it often associated with antimicrobial resistance.
Leading the fight
Mike Barer, Professor of Clinical Microbiology and Honorary Consultant Microbiologist at the University of Leicester’s Department of Respiratory Sciences, works at the interface between bacterial physiology and human infection, focussing on tuberculosis and on microbiome studies.
Professor Barer is revolutionising understanding and diagnosis of TB. Working in collaboration with academics from the University of Pretoria in an MRC-GCRF funded project, he has developed a way of detecting TB bacteria breathed out into face masks. With Professor Jingzhe Pan in our School of Engineerring, he has developed a 3D printed strip which is inserted into masks to take the samples. The approach has clear potential to change the way we detect infectious TB and save millions of lives across the world.
Designed and printed at the University, the insert captures and stabilises TB bacteria breathed out by infected individuals in masks worn for just thirty minutes. A lab test taking less than two hours is then used to detect the bacteria. Promising early results show that mask sampling can detect the infection several weeks before established methods such as chest x-ray and phlegm sample analyses. Mask sampling detects patients who are infectious at an early stage and stops them spreading infection as early as possible, something other tests may miss for several weeks.
Unlike a blood test, which cannot differentiate between active and dormant TB, the mask provides rapid detection of bacteria, offering a more direct indicator of how infectious individuals are compared to traditional sputum samples, reducing the need for invasive investigation.
It costs the NHS £1.8m annually to test for TB in adults – in comparison, the mask and insert materials cost around £2 and once in industrial production could cost just pennies per mask, potentially making valuable savings for health services around the world.