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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Technology Gives Hope to TB Patients

New scientific breakthroughs could soon give Russia the technology for quickly diagnosing drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, helping to save lives and slow the spread of the disease.

Scientists from a Moscow-based research institute say they are developing a biochip that can be used to diagnose strains of the deadly drug-resistant bacteria.

Humanitarian organizations have warned that about one-third of all Russian TB patients are inmates of chronically overcrowded prisons and it is they who are mainly responsible for the rapid spread of the disease. About 30 percent of them are suffering from a multidrug-resistant form of tuberculosis.

The biochip is a joint project of the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory and the Academy of Sciences' Engelhardt Research Institute of Molecular Biology and is being developed simultaneously in Moscow and Argonne, Illinois.

Conventional methods of detecting drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis take up to eight weeks and involve an expensive, trial-and-error process of finding the right medicine. The biochip technology produces a diagnosis within an hour, and the price of a biochip could eventually be $1 or less, scientists say.

"The advantage of this [new] method is that it is cheap, which is important, as tuberculosis generally hits people who cannot pay for the treatment," said biology professor Andrei Mirzabekov, the director of the Moscow institute and the head of the biochip center at Argonne National Laboratory.

Mirzabekov described biochips as tiny pieces of glass or silicon, measuring only 3 millimeters by 3 millimeters, coated with a gel containing genes responsible for different mutations associated with drug resistance. These genes interact with the DNA of whatever material is placed on them, he said in a recent telephone interview from Argonne.

To diagnose drug-resistant forms of TB, sputum is placed on the chip. If a mutation is found, materials interacting on the chip cause florescent substances contained in the gel to change color. The process can be observed through the special microscope of an instrument designed to analyze or "read" biochips.

Mirzabekov said the new method will help doctors determine treatment strategy earlier, thus making the treatment less expensive and reducing the patient's risk of death.

So far, scientists have developed biochips containing genes able to identify seven mutations of drug-resistant bacteria, but the chips they are developing now will some day be able to detect more than 30, Mirzabekov said.

"There exists a huge need for equipment for diagnosing MDR [multidrug resistant tuberculosis] quicker," said Dr. Hans Kluge, assistant coordinator for the World Health Organization's TB program in Russia.

Like electronic chips capable of performing thousands of different functions simultaneously, biochips are able to carry out thousands of tests for different micro elements simultaneously, Mirzabekov said. For example, they can be used in diagnosing hereditary diseases and in researching the influence of medicines on the cells of different organs.

"Diagnosing tuberculosis is just one of the problems that can be solved with the help of the biochips. The technology has a colossal future," Mirzabekov said.

He first started work on biochip technology 11 years ago. But Russian authorities showed little interest in supporting the research, and the financing for the Moscow institute's new projects soon dried up.

Mirzabekov said the U.S. corporate giants Motorola and Packard Instrument have contributed $3 million to support the research and plan to invest more in other projects related to the biological microchips.

"They [Americans] are very practical people and understand that this project is a good test of the level of our overall biochip technology," Mirzabekov said.

Not only has the Russian government not allocated a single ruble for the research, he said, but this fall the city turned off the electricity and the central heating in the institute's headquarters in southwestern Moscow, on Ulitsa Vavilova.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that the incidence of tuberculosis in Russia has increased from 34 per 100,000 population in 1991 to 78 per 100,000 in 1998. The World Health Organization estimated there were 150,000 new cases last year alone.

If the Russian government would support the biochip project, Mirzabekov said he could arrange for the manufacturing of the chips and instruments to analyze them as early as next year.