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Dartmouth prof developing TB breath test

Jun 22, 2015   |   by Meghan Pierce   |   NH Union Leader

Dartmouth engineering professor Jane Hill is working to develop a breath test that determines if the patient is infected with tuberculosis and the stage of the infection.

Though TB is rare in the U.S., it has recently made headlines, with an outbreak at a school in Vermont, Hill said, and a recent case of a woman from India who was diagnosed with an antibiotic-resistant strain of TB after arriving in the U.S. and visiting several states.

Hill, who is a professor at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth, has traveled to South Africa, where the cases of both TB and HIV are the highest in the world, several times during the past year testing the device. And because HIV suppresses the immune system, TB is even more deadly for those patients.

“It’s the number one killer of people with HIV, at least in the developing world,” Hill said.

TB is quite common in “Southern Africa as a whole,” Hill said, as well as India and Asia.

Each year, 9 million or more people are diagnosed with TB and 1.5 million people die each year from the disease.

Hill’s research focuses on using biomarkers in the breath. It’s a noninvasive and accurate way to diagnose TB as well as other infectious respiratory diseases, Hill said.

Hill’s diagnostic breath test has the advantage of giving doctor and patient an answer in a matter of minutes as opposed to a time consuming lab tests in which the potential TB patient may be living and working in their community untreated.

“We’re figuring out what the biomarkers are and you will have a result in minutes,” Hill said.

The patient can begin treatment right away, she said, rather than return to their communities untreated where the airborne disease could spread to others.

So far the test has been administered mostly to confirmed cases of TB, but will soon begin clinical trials in Boston, South Africa and Tanzania.

Unfortunately, Hill’s test cannot determine if the strain of TB is antibiotic-resistant or not, she said. That only becomes apparent when the patient under treatment gets better, she said.

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