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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Q&A: Professor Hill on a Diagnostic Breath Test in South Africa

By Anna Fiorentino
January 2015 • CoolStuff

Dartmouth engineering professor Jane Hill returned from 10 days in South Africa where the incidence of both tuberculosis and HIV is one of the highest in the world. Professor Hill’s research focuses on using biomarkers in the breath for rapid, non-invasive, and accurate diagnosis of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis (TB). This simple breath test could provide an alternative to the time consuming process of collecting samples and testing their response to antibiotics in the lab.

To lay the groundwork for a TB breath test trial in South Africa, Hill stopped at the major hospitals and some TB clinics in Johannesburg, and visited Soweto and a gold mining company in Carletonville, where TB is common. After five years of preparation, she plans to return in a few months to begin clinical testing.

What was the purpose of your trip to South Africa? 

My group focuses on the discovery of diagnostic biomarkers for infectious diseases, primarily respiratory infections, through breath collection. One of our targets is tuberculosis, a respiratory bacterial disease that kills 1.5 million people each year. The current TB diagnostics landscape has a few problems, the primary one being that up to half of folks co-infected with HIV go undiagnosed as the current tests just don’t work when HIV is present. The purpose of my trip was to meet key people in the organizations that work with patients with TB in the Johannesburg area and to try and find suitable locations to conduct the first phase of our breath research project. We are gearing up to start breath collection for tuberculosis in Johannesburg in early March. In addition, we have ongoing domestic projects in the area of infectious disease diagnosis for patients with lower respiratory tract infections, particularly patients on ventilators, and those with cystic fibrosis.

How does breath collection analysis work?

Once taken, the compounds in an individual’s breath are immediately analyzed through advanced mass spectrometry instruments that detect tiny amounts of the molecules in their breath. When our biomarker assessment and validation work is complete, using breath to diagnose and monitor patients will transform respiratory medicine and improve the quality of life, saving lives around the globe.

What was most memorable about South Africa?

Dr. Marianne Felix and Dr. Jean-Patrick Leger, the parents of Janine Leger ’15, were my kind and generous hosts while I was in Johannesburg. It was their enthusiasm about the potential of the TB project as well as Dr. Felix’s encyclopedic knowledge of the healthcare landscape in the greater Johannesburg area that made this trip so productive. I was also fortunate to attend a Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce, where I heard Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak. The man was inspirational and incredibly funny. I will not easily forget his cackling laughter.

Are engineering students on your team?

While they didn’t come to Africa, the three graduate students in my group involved in this work are PhD candidates Ted Mellors, Jackson Sengle, and joint medical student-PhD candidate Chris Rees. Thayer’s First Year Research in Engineering program recipient Lloyd May, from South Africa, will be working in my laboratory starting this winter term.


Professor Hill discusses her work to advance breath-based diagnosis of infectious diseases:

Tags: engineering in medicine, faculty, humanitarian service, innovation, international, research, students

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