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Electronic nose “smells” TB, competes with rats

Rwanda, that little red dot in the middle of Africa

An odd-sounding scientific experiment — a battery-powered “electronic nose” —  has been awarded a $950,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada.

The grant, which was announced on Monday at the annual Grand Challenges Meeting in Delhi, India, was one of nine previously selected projects to receive up to $1 million in additional funding.

In addition to development, the new grant will be used to test how effectively the hand-held e-nose can diagnose TB from a patient’s breath. “Just like the police can take the roadside breathalyser test right to your car window, this device could take the diagnosis of TB right to the door of the hut in your village,” Peter Singer, the CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, told AlertNet.

Flickr, CarbonNYC

Why we need a new test

Standard TB diagnostic tools need to be used in a lab setting, which can pose barriers for people in resource-poor areas where TB is more common. Though there was much excitement about the World Health Organization-approved Gene Xpert TB diagnostic test last year, the test has faced implementation problems. One concern is that the Gene Xpert cannot be used at the point-of-care.

That’s a big issue when it comes to diagnosing TB. The Globe and Mail writes:

Taking time off work to travel for TB testing is simply not possible for many of the world’s poor, said Ranjan Nanda, who works with the New Delhi-based International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and a lead researcher on the electronic-nose project.

Dr. Nanda envisions creating a handheld device that runs on batteries and would be readily available in communities throughout the developing world. …

“Tuberculosis is a local problem,” Dr. Nanda said. “We need a better screening device.”

Standard TB tests, which have been around for decades, involve testing the patient’s sputum and aren’t reliable.

By the way, if sniffing out TB sounds familiar it’s probably because odor in the context of TB diagnostics has certainly come up before. Remember those giant pouched African rats? They have received a lot of attention for their ability to detect TB.

But unlike the e-nose, the rats don’t require batteries.

Ponder that as you watch this TED talk with Bart Weetjens, founder of the nonprofit Apopo, describe how he trains rats to sniff out TB and land mines:


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