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WASHINGTON, D.C. — A group of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have developed a new portable system for detecting pathogens, including tuberculosis (TB) bacteria in human lung fluid.
This is a significant advance because two billion people worldwide carry the TB pathogen, and most of them do not even know they are infected. Once their disease is detected, people with TB can be treated with a long course of antibiotics, and one of the basic strategies behind the World Health Organization's current efforts to curb the spread of the disease worldwide is to simply find those people and get them antibiotics. Finding infected people is not so simple. Doctors can turn to a century-old technique called a sputum smear, where a sample of coughed fluid is stained and examined under a microscope for indications of the infection, but this generally only works if the concentration of bacteria is high enough.
Now the team led by Ralph Weissleder and Hakho Lee at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School has developed a hand-held TB detector that has shown to be 1,000-times more sensitive at detecting TB in laboratory experiments. The device is basically a miniature version of a hospital MRI that Lee projects may eventually cost only a few hundred dollars to make and around ten dollars per use. It detects TB after coughed fluids from the lungs are mixed with magnetic nanoparticles that specifically stick to the rod-like TB bacteria. Says Lee, they plan to field-test the device in South Africa later this year to see how well it can detect actual cases of the disease.
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Headquartered in College Park, MD, the American Institute of Physics is a not-for-profit membership corporation chartered in New York State in 1931 for the purpose of promoting the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics and its application to human welfare.