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Faculty & Staff Honors

Washington Receives Grant to Test Oral Swabs for TB Diagnosis

Researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health and the University of Cape Town in South Africa plan to partner on a two-year study to test a lower-cost, simpler and safer method in diagnosing tuberculosis (TB). A $1.02 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the UW will fund the project.

University of Washington Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences group faculty photo
[Photo: Dr. Gerard Cangelosi]

The new, larger study builds on an earlier, small pilot project that found that oral swabs correctly detected TB in most of the adult participants who had the infection.

About eight million people develop TB each year. The infection results in about 1.5 million deaths annually. The World Health Organization reported last year that alternatives to the current diagnostic method were badly needed to identify suspected TB cases.

Currently, diagnosing TB relies on testing a sample of sputum, a thick, sticky phlegm coughed up from the lungs. The gelatinous quality and complexity of the material make finding the TB bacteria difficult.

“An alternative to sputum testing has been a Holy Grail in TB testing and diagnostics. There’s a huge need, and we think the oral swab addresses this need,” said Dr. Gerard Cangelosi, who leads the research study. He is a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and of global health in the UW School of Public Health.

The disease is preventable and curable with antimicrobial drugs. Yet, treatment is often delayed because it can be difficult to motivate people to visit a clinic and provide a sputum sample for testing. As a result of these delays, those ill with TB may infect up to 15 people a year through contact at home, school, work, or in clinics.

“By the time people are coughing and producing sputum, they are often sick and highly contagious. An important goal in eradicating TB is to diagnose and treat people early to prevent the disease spreading to others,” said Dr. Mark Hatherill, a professor at the University of Cape Town in South Africa who directs the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative.

Ms. Rachel Wood and Ms. Felicia Nguyen from the UW are also involved in the project. Dr. Angelique Luabeya, Dr. Justin Shenje and Dr. Mark Nicol will lead the clinical research activities in South Africa.