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Uni students create TB detection chip

AAP logoAAP 29/10/2016

Two Bolivian university students have created a chip for microscopes that automatically detects tuberculosis in sputum samples, a procedure that in Bolivia and other developing countries is normally done with not always accurate bacilloscopy.

Rodrigo Loza, 22, and Khalil Nallar, 21, students of biomedicine and mechatronics, respectively, at the Bolivian Catholic University, consider the device an alternative to the "old and fairly unreliable methods" used to diagnose the illness.

"We propose an inexpensive device, automatic (with no need for manual operation) and 100 percent reliable," Loza told EFE.

Tuberculosis is one of the biggest killers in the world with 1.3 million victims a year, and with its highest mortality rates in the poor and developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Loza and Nallar began their work with a visit to the La Paz Thorax Hospital, an institution that diagnoses TB by bacilloscopy, a series of exams over three consecutive days, during which sputum samples are taken to detect the disease.

However, Nallar said, that method has "several limitations," since it is a "long, tiring" process for doctors because it obliges them to stay for several hours in front of a microscope.

It is also "not very trustworthy" because it does not establish with certainty that the patient is a carrier of the virus, which impedes its prevention.

"New molecular methods have been invented to detect the illness, but they are not used in poor countries due to their relatively high cost and the lack of trained personnel," he said.

With that in mind, the inventors thought about making the TB diagnosis automatic by using a smart chip that allows the microscope to automatically identify the illness and process the results with an app carried by doctors.

"What's good about our device is that it's precise, fast and cheap - it costs $US130 and could be even less with mass production. So what we propose is specificity and precision of diagnoses at a low cost," Loza said.

The first prototype of the device is ready and is now being tested at the bacilloscopy lab at the La Paz Thorax Hospital.

The head of the TB lab, Dr Anel Alvarez, told EFE that the device is "doing well" and, though they still have to work with it a little more on the precise identification of bacilli, the way the chip works is "amazing."

"Applying the chip created by those young students would be incredible because it would help us a lot in terms of diagnostic speed and precision, which would in turn contribute to the prevention of the illness," Dr Alvarez said.

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