A simpler more reliable method of TB detection in children is undergoing verification trials in West Africa. Dr Toyin Togun of the RI-MUHC in Montreal (R) and staff shown at the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia (MRCG) in West Africa
Photo Credit: RI-MUHC

Childhood tuberculosis: Montreal researchers advancing the fight

Trials in The Gambia and Malawi

Tuberculosis, or TB as its more simply known, is a deadly disease especially for children.

In 2015, there were about 1 million incident cases of tuberculosis in children younger than 15 years of age, and as many as 210,000 children died from the disease.

Detected early, TB can be readily defeated, but early detection in children is difficult.

Scientists at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada, are working on a new, simpler and more accurate method to detect the disease in children

Dr. Toyin Togun (MD, PhD) is lead on the project. He has been a Steinberg Global Health Fellow since 2016 in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at McGill University.

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Dr Toyin Togun (MD, PhD) leads the research into early detection of TB in children using a newly discovered biomarker in blood.
Dr Toyin Togun (MD, PhD) leads the research into early detection of TB in children using a newly discovered biomarker in blood. © RI-MUHC

Caught early, tuberculosis can be overcome with relatively inexpensive drugs and treatment, but early detection is the issue, especially in children. This is where an international team of researchers  led by scientists based in Montreal are focusing their efforts.

Dr Togun, lead researcher, says TB is too often a disease of poverty. There are high incident rates in developing countries, which is where McGill scientists and a team of international researchers are holding validation trials of their new detection method.

Typically, TB is detected through lab analysis of sputum, and chest X-rays, but Dr Togun notes that children aften cannot produce adequate sputum samples from deep in the throat and X-rays of children are not reliable due to other factors such as other unrelated respiratory issues.

Dr. Togun splits his time between Montreal and the project’s development center at the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia (MRCG) in West Africa
Dr. Togun splits his time between Montreal and the project’s development site at the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia (MRCG) in West Africa © Ri-MUHC

When not detected early, the TB can spread in the body, and lead to death.

Blood-based biomarker

What the researchers have discovered is a blood-based biomarker of TB that can tested from a sample of blood and which does not require highly sophisticated lab equipment or processes. The team is now working on a process to develop the test using a simple finger prick blood sample.

Potential to save lives

This would be of enormous advantage in developing countries where lab facilities and experience are less available, and where children can be tested and diagnosed. This has the potential to save literally thousands of lives, not just in West Africa, but indeed around the world, and not only in developing countries but anywhere children are suspected of having the disease.

Supervising the research is Dr. Madhukar Pai, scientist with the Infectious Diseases and Immunity in Global Health Program at the RI-MUHC and Director of McGill Global Health Programs.
Supervising the research is Dr. Madhukar Pai, scientist with the Infectious Diseases and Immunity in Global Health Program at the RI-MUHC and Director of McGill Global Health Programs. © RI-MUHC

The biomarker and detection process has shown a high degree of reliability and the project is now undergoing validation in The Gambia and other areas involving children facing a wide spectrum of health situations.

Supervising the work is Dr. Madhukar Pai, associate director at the McGill International TB Centre based at the RI-MUHC and McGill University. He and his team was awarded a $100,000 grant from Grand Challenges Canada for their pioneering work to improve the diagnosis of TB in children under the age of 15.

The new detection method involves a basic blood test to detect the presence of at TB biomarker in the blood, This detection development is simpler, cheaper, more reliable and doew not require highly sophisticated equpment of training.
The new detection method involves a basic blood test to detect the presence of at TB biomarker in the blood, This detection development is simpler, cheaper, more reliable and does not require highly sophisticated equipment or training. It is now undergoing verification trials and could begin wide use and saving lives within a couple of years © RI-MUHC

Because it is more accurate, the new test will also help to detect which suspected cases have TB or not. This in turn will eliminate unnecessary treatment for those not having the disease, while avoiding actual cases being misdiagnosed and sent away without getting treatment.

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