Revolutionary new test for identifying people infected with tuberculosis

A revolutionary new test for identifying people infected with tuberculosis (TB), one of the leading causes of death worldwide, has been launched by Oxford University spin-off company Oxford Immunotec after receiving approval for use in Europe.

The test – named T SPOT-TB – is designed to replace the century old skin test for TB, which is currently given to 600,000 UK schoolchildren every year. The test comes from discoveries made over the last 10 years at the University of Oxford by Dr Aljit Lalvani and collaborators at the Nuffield Department of Medicine. Oxford Immunitec have turned these discoveries into patented technology which provides a simple and extremely accurate way of studying a person’s cellular immune response to an infection. When someone becomes infected with TB the disease induces a strong response by immune cells in the blood called T-cells. The new test looks to see if the body has produced these cells in response to TB and monitors how their numbers change over time. In this way, it is possible to determine if a person is infected and whether they are effectively fighting the infection. This powerful technique can be used not only for diagnosis of infections, but also for prognosis of disease and monitoring of treatment.

Crucially, the T SPOT-TB test makes it possible to accurately identify people who are carrying TB infection, but who have not yet gone on to develop disease. Diagnosing and treating infected people before they go on to develop severe disease and infect others is essential to prevent the spread of TB and save lives. TB kills between two and three million people each year, and the death toll is increasing. TB in the UK has risen almost every year for the last 15 years, with 6,500 newly diagnosed cases each year.

‘The tools currently used to diagnose TB are 50-100 years old; this disease has been neglected for decades. I am pleased that we have finally brought the benefits of modern scientific research to the front-line to fight this age old disease,’ said Dr Lalvani. ‘In contrast to the crude and inaccurate skin test, this new blood test is fast, accurate and convenient. It is a 100-year upgrade for diagnosing TB and I believe it will significantly improve the way we manage the disease.’

Since 1998, Dr Lalvani has used this rapid blood test in double blinded, randomised studies to prove its effectiveness in over 2,000 TB patients and healthy controls in eight different countries. These studies demonstrate that the new test is a radical improvement on the current skin test, and that, unlike the skin test, it works well in people with weaker immune systems, such as children, the elderly and those immunosuppressed with diseases like HIV.

Dr Peter Wrighton-Smith, CEO of Oxford Immunotec, said: ‘We are extremely excited about this new test which we believe will revolutionise TB control. This test is needed as never before because TB is resurging in the developed world and already parts of the UK have TB rates as high as India. The huge amount of clinical data gathered to date proves this technology works and we are already looking to apply it to other diseases where the cellular immune response is critical, such as HIV, Hepatitis C and Cancer.’

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