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Graduate student Mireille Kamariza works with Professor Carolyn Bertozzi.

A cheaper, faster, more reliable test for TB developed by Stanford researchers

Tuberculosis is a major public health problem worldwide, yet most people lack access to quick, reliable testing. Now, chemists have found a solution.

For most Americans, tuberculosis is something you read about in history books, not something you experience first or even second hand. But in developing countries, it remains a real threat to public health, in part because there's no simple, reliable test for the bacteria that causes TB that works in clinics with limited resources.

A new test, developed by Stanford chemists in collaboration with researchers in Germany and South Africa, could change that, Carolyn Bertozzi, PhD, a professor of chemistry, her graduate students Mireille Kamariza and Peyton Shieh and colleagues write in Science Translational Medicine.

Making a functioning test a reality was a stiff challenge. As I write in a Stanford News story, reliable modern tests for TB require electricity, refrigeration and some sophisticated equipment — things many Americans take for granted.

Rural clinics in developing countries – and some urban clinics as well – may not have such luxuries. Some of those clinics are little more than sheds to provide shade and privacy, and they often lack electricity, running water or money to run complicated tests. Patients, meanwhile, often travel long distances to get to a clinic and may or may not return for test results and treatment.

'You’re talking about places where complicated technologies that we develop here just don’t translate,' said Bertozzi, who is also a faculty fellow of Stanford ChEM-H.

The solution, which builds on the Bertozzi lab's decades of experience studying the chemistry of tuberculosis, lies in a special sugar molecule called trehalose, which the lab modified to glow when consumed by the bacteria that causes the disease. Of course, what works in a modern lab at Stanford might not work in developing countries, so the team worked with researchers in South Africa to put their test to, well, the test — and the results so far are promising, the researchers report.

Photo by L.A. Cicero

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