"If you can build instruments rugged enough to look for life elsewhere in the Solar System, you should be able to crack the problem of detecting TB bacteria in the lung of a patient"
Technology developed for the Beagle 2 and Rosetta space missions could soon be harnessed to provide a cost-effective, rapid and accurate tool for diagnosing tuberculosis (TB).
The Wellcome Trust has awarded scientists at the Open University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) a £1.34 million Strategic Translation Award to develop a mass spectrometer capable of detecting TB in countries where resources are poor.
The project was announced at the Space 50 celebrations at Jodrell Bank.
TB, which is caused by the M tuberculosis bacterium, is thought to kill two million people every year, primarily in the developing world.
However, diagnosing TB in resource-poor settings relies mainly on the use of smear microscopy of sputum samples, a very labour-intensive process with low sensitivity.
Now, researchers led by Geraint 'Taff' Morgan and Professor Colin Pillinger at the Open University together with Liz Corbett from the LSHTM have received funding from the Wellcome Trust to develop a portable mass spectrometer for diagnosing TB.
The technology has been developed by the team behind the experiment that was to search for life on Mars during the Beagle 2 mission and the Ptolemy instrument currently on-board the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft.
"Smear microscopy is not a very accurate way of diagnosing TB and only detects a third of all positive cases," says Morgan.
"That means seven out of ten patients will effectively need to get worse before they can be diagnosed and treated.
"Clearly, we need a new solution to this problem.
"The thing with developing technology for space missions is that if forces you to push boundaries and think outside the box when you're looking for new solutions to challenging problems.
"Many of the technical challenges we have overcome in designing our space instruments are the same as we face with this issue".
Launched in 2004, Rosetta will be the first spacecraft ever to conduct scientific measurements on the surface of a comet.
The Rosetta Lander includes a shoe-box sized gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS), known as Ptolemy, which will analyse small pieces of the comet's nucleus to identify what it is made from and answer questions about the make up of the early Solar System and whether comets may have been the source of water and the building blocks of life on Earth.
Morgan believes that they can adapt Rosetta's technology to develop a GC-MS capable of detecting TB in sputum with greater sensitivity than smear microscopy and significantly quicker than the alternative culture methods.
The process could be automated, meaning that skilled laboratory technicians would not be needed, and would not need to be carried out in a special laboratory, making the technology more widely available in the places that need it most.
"Chemicals have their own unique signature," says Morgan.
"The bacterium that causes TB has a special coating and it is the pattern of chemicals in this coating that the mass spectrometer will be searching for".
Morgan will work with clinical partners Liz Corbett and Ruth McNerney from the LSHTM and Conrad Bessant from the Bioinformatics Group at Cranfield University to optimise and validate the technique.
In the second year of its development, the device will be trialled in the field, in Zimbabwe, where Corbett is based.
"We urgently need an accurate and cost effective method of diagnosing TB," says Corbett, a Wellcome Trust senior clinical fellow in tropical medicine.
" At the moment, because diagnosis is not accurate, people with TB may have to be seen up to ten times before they can be started on TB treatment.
"They may be infectious throughout this period and, especially if they also have HIV, at considerable risk of dying before their diagnosis is made".
The research was welcomed by Ted Bianco, director of technology transfer at the Wellcome Trust.
"Morgan and his colleagues have important technology to offer in the quest for improved detection of active TB, one of the highest priorities identified by clinicians on the front-line of this health emergency," says Bianco.
"Combining their expertise in mass spectrometry with the experience of doctors working in southern Africa is a potent mix of talent.
The Wellcome Trust funded development of the original mass spectrometer on the Beagle 2 mission to Mars.
Professor Colin Pillinger, the driving force behind the mission, has praised the Trust's vision.
"The Wellcome Trust had the foresight to see that the miniaturisation process needed to develop a mass spectrometer capable of fitting onto a spacecraft could have applications far closer to home," says Pillinger.
"It is very rewarding to see such vision paying off in clinical research."