A joint research venture between the University of Pretoria (UP) and the University of Leicester (UL) has brought about the emergence of a new technology that successfully gives a premature diagnosis of Tuberculosis (TB) in individuals. The technology comprises of 3D printed strips that are inserted into a face mask. The inserts are 3D printed polyvinyl alcohol strips that have the capability to catch the tiny TB particles. The details of the technology were published by The Lancet on 18 February.
TB is an airborne infection, therefore particles can stay airborne for up to 8 hours. The TB bacteria can enter the body as humans inhale thousands of particles with every breath. The bacteria is transmitted via airborne particles called droplet nuclei that vary in size, from between 1-5 microns. The polyvinyl strips were designed and printed at UL. The strips are capable of catching
prospective TB bacteria within 30 minutes of a potential TB patient wearing it. This allows for a quick diagnosis that leads to earlier treatment, thereby reducing potential lung destruction before symptoms are evident.
“The TB bacteria can enter the body as humans inhale thousands of particles with every breath.“
The joint research venture arose due to a chance meeting between Professor Stoltz and Professor Barer – a Professor of Clinical Microbiology and Honorary Consultant Microbiologist (UL). Professor Barer and his team had initially used gelatin coins in the mask but this plan of action had a few limitations. The progression of testing materials led to the utilisation of the polyvinyl strips that were inexpensive and also 3D printed by an engineering student who was pursuing their Ph.D and had investigated the properties of the material.
Professor Anton Stoltz, Head of Department in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UP, said this finding is particularly important because it makes early detection of TB easier and faster. He mentions that “this is a potentially universal solution that can also benefit underprivileged communities, who still struggle with accessing healthcare”. Furthermore, Professor Stoltz highlighted the ease of accessibility of the technology, as it is accessible via the Family Medicine Community Program (COCP). Professor Stoltz states that “community health workers are currently walking with these masks and distributing it to families that are tested for tuberculosis”. After 30 minutes, the masks are collected and taken to the labs at UP to test for the presence of TB bacteria on the strips. Professor Stoltz mentions that this is the second phase of their experimental venture to evaluate how well the masks are picking up TB in the community.
During a pilot study conducted by UP and UL, researchers sampled 24 people with confirmed TB over a 24-hour period, which showed that infectious TB was exhaled and spread when patients were asleep. This was a breakthrough in the understanding of the disease, as it demonstrated that a cough may not be required to spread the infection. All of the work that was published under Lancet Infectious Diseases, was undertaken in South Africa.
“this is a potentially universal solution that can also benefit underprivileged communities, who still struggle with accessing healthcare“
Professor Stoltz reveals that the research team is planning to undertake a study in small children due to the difficulties imposed when diagnosing children. Furthermore, the mask is to be tested in congregate settings such as jails, nursing homes, and shelters.
In speaking about the potentiality of the technology to detect other airborne infections, Professor Stoltz confirms that his team has already started testing the technology for respiratory viruses and is currently writing a protocol for evaluation of COVID-19 coronavirus infections. This technology has revolutionized the way we combat airborne infections that afflict humanity.