Rapid TB detection may be on the horizon

Deborah Hung, a core faculty member of the Broad Institute, and her colleagues are working on a method to rapidly diagnose patients with tuberculosis and other pathogens to determine antibiotic resistance and susceptibility.

Current detection methods can take weeks or months to determine if a patient has an antibiotic-resistant strain of TB. Hung and her colleagues published a paper indicating that it may be possible to rapidly diagnose patients with a wide range of pathogens by using antibiotics to make changes in the RNA transcripts of bacteria.

"Antibiotics have an unseen effect on bacteria in a matter of hours, even minutes in many cases," James Gomez, a co-first author of the paper, said. "This means that RNA transcriptional signatures are going to be a super fast way to tell if bacteria are reacting to antibiotic treatment."

The RNA-based technique must be tested more widely to determine its validity. It has currently been tested on clinical urine samples to detect three strains of urinary tract infection-causing bacteria to determine which strains were antibiotic-resistant. The real test will come when researchers test the technique on sputum samples of tuberculosis collected from patients directly.

"To get somewhere with this diagnostic or any other fundamentally new approach is going to require an incredible, interdisciplinary effort," Hung said. "Detection requires microbiological expertise, but it also requires people with different backgrounds and knowledge, from genomics and bioinformatics to engineering, to come together. We cannot forever diagnose infection and antibiotic susceptibility the way that we currently do. It's simply not good enough; it simply is not fast enough."