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Wits has just figured out how to use invisible ink to detect TB – and it could change the way patients are treated

Timothy Rangongo , Business Insider SA
  • TB can now be more accurately and quickly diagnosed and treated by adding a molecule called DMN-trehalose.
  • Once added, the invisible ink illuminates under fluorescent light, making detection easier to spot.
  • DMN-trehalose has proved effective in detecting live TB bacteria in patients.

Patients suffering from Tuberulosis (TB) can now be more accurately and quickly diagnosed and treated by adding a new chemical called DMN-trehalose – a.k.a. invisible ink – to TB bacteria's protective layer.

Once added, the invisible ink illuminates under fluorescent light, making detection easier.

TB is the leading infectious killer worldwide. South Africa is one of the countries with the highest burden of TB, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics giving an estimated incidence of over 450,000 cases of active TB in a report.

The newly discovered process departs from how TB was traditionally detected through saliva, growing tubercle bacteria in a lab which took longer, or through the use of a GeneXpert machine.

Where we’re positioning the new stain is to create a simpler process, which provides the opportunity to stain TB bacteria in a smear more quickly and with high specificity.
Professor Bavesh Kana, Head of the Biomedical TB Research Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand

A patient infected with 100 TB bacteri could expect a gradual reduction in the number of TB bacteria over six months of treatment. Existing smear diagnostic methods, however, are inadequate at demonstrating how well a person is actually responding to treatment, because  these methods reveal both living and dead bacteria, says Kana.

He adds that “because DMN-trehalose only stains live bacteria, it will better indicate how well or poorly a person with TB is responding to treatment."

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