Once feared across the Western world as “Consumption,” today Tuberculosis is still prevalent in poorer parts of the world. As well as being contagious and often lethal, it is difficult to test for, especially in developing countries. A new device by Israeli scientists might be about to make tracking this disease much easier though. 

Tuberculosis (“TB”) is caused by a bacterial infection, and it is estimated that up to a third of the world’s population has it. However, in the majority of cases (latent TB) the disease is not harmful or infectious. In 5 to 10 percent of cases, however, the disease becomes active. At this stage, characterised by conditions such as sneezing, coughing and serious weight loss, TB becomes very infectious. If left untreated at this point it is also fatal half of the time, resulting in nearly a million and half deaths a year.

A research team from Technion – The Israel Institute of Technology – have proposed a revolutionary solution for identifying active TB infections. A patch is painlessly attached to the skin, and then changes colour after an hour – red if the person is infected, green if not.

This represents a considerable improvement on current methods, where samples are sent off to laboratories to be analysed by specialists. Not only is this time-consuming, but many of the worst-affected countries simply do not have regular access to these facilities.

This new patch – a flexible and wearable polymeric pouch – works by detecting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with TB in the air trapped above the skin’s surface.Sensors in the patch in effect are analysing the ‘smell’ of the person to see if they match the profile of someone with TB.

So far this patch has been tested on 1,000 people in South Africa, India and Latvia, supported by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The team hopes that they will be able to get the patch on to the market within a few years.

If this happens, it will represent another success for the Technion. Since 1912, the academic institution has been at the forefront of spearheading Israel’s scientific endeavours. Israel today is the country with the highest percentage of scientists and engineers – and the majority of them studied at the Technion, home to three of Israel’s five science Nobel Laureates.

Alan Aziz, CEO of Technion UK, commented: “A fast, simple and cheap test for TB is nothing to be sniffed at. If successful, current methods for identifying this deadly disease won’t be a patch on this patch. Yet again, thousands of lives could be saved by pioneering new technology from Technion researchers.”