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Mason scientist Alessandra Luchini worked with an international team to develop nanotechnology that could lead to a rapid test for tuberculosis that could save millions of lives.

Mason Scientists’ TB Research Could Help Millions

Mason scientists have developed nanotechnology that for the first time can measure a sugar molecule in urine that identifies tuberculosis with high sensitivity and specificity.

Portrait of Lance Liotta

“We can measure now what could never be measured before,” says Lance Liotta, co-director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.

This sets the stage for a rapid, highly accurate, and far less-invasive urine test of the disease. That could mean the difference between life and death in many underdeveloped parts of the world. The disease is on the rise around the globe.

The international team led by Mason’s Alessandra Luchini and Lance Liotta report in Science Translational Magazine that a sugar molecule called “LAM,” which comes from the surface of the tuberculosis bacteria, can be measured in the urine of all patients with active tuberculosis, regardless of whether they have a simultaneous infection with another pathogen (e.g., HIV). The more severe the disease, the higher the sugar concentration in the urine, says Luchini, an associate professor in Mason’s College of Science.

Current methods of detection—skin tests, blood tests, and chest X-rays—are often expensive and not always available in less-developed parts of the world. Urine can be easily and noninvasively collected.

“We can measure now what could never be measured before,” says Liotta, co-director of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.

The World Health Organization estimates that TB kills 1.8 million people annually. In 2015, 10.4 million people worldwide fell ill with TB, with an estimated four million of those cases never reported, diagnosed, or treated. The mortality rate for untreated TB is 68 percent; diagnosis and treatment lowers that figure to five percent.

Accurate urine testing had been impossible in the past because TB-shed markers exist in very low concentrations and are masked by other urinary resident proteins. The Mason scientists, aided by Mason students, and scientists from Peru, Italy, and Johns Hopkins University, discovered that a special copper dye will bind and capture TB LAM sugar with high affinity.

“We showed that our technology could be used to measure several different kinds of markers for TB in the urine and could be configured as a rapid test similar to a pregnancy test,” Luchini says.

Their work, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, served as the basis for the subsequent breakthrough by a group of Mason students in developing a cheap and less-invasive “dipstick” TB test. The Mason students will eventually head to Peru to begin testing their device.

Mason partner Ceres Nanosciences will be commercializing the technology, with the aim of making the test available worldwide.

“We have everything in place to do our best to get this out and help people in the world,” says Luchini.

By John Hollis