Technology developed for two European Space Agency (ESA) missions could soon be used to cost- effectively, rapidly, and accurately diagnose tuberculosis (TB). Scientists at The Open University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) are developing a mass spectrometer capable of detecting TB in countries where resources are few. TB kills about two million people every year, primarily in developing countries. Diagnosing TB in resource-poor settings relies on smear microscopy of sputum samples, a labor-intensive process with low sensitivity.

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 onboard the ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, which was launched in 2004. The Rosetta Lander includes a shoebox-sized gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS) to analyze small pieces of a comet's nucleus. That technology is being adapted 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 lab technicians would not be needed, making the technology more widely available in the places that need it most. TB has a special coating, and it is the pattern of chemicals in the coating that the instrument will search for.

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