Genomics: Finding a faster way to diagnose TB

Researchers will be using genomics — the study of genes — to diagnose and treat tuberculosis more efficiently.

'The reality is that it's still something we're dealing with in B.C.'

Tuberculosis — or TB — is an infectious bacterial disease that generally affects the lungs. (CBC)

Researchers at B.C.'s Centre for Disease Control and Oxford University are trying to find a way to diagnose tuberculosis faster by using genomics research.

Dr. Jennifer Gardy, an assistant professor at UBC and the Canada Research Chair in Public Health Genomics, said the current timeline to diagnose tuberculosis — four to six weeks — is inefficient.

"And it's not unheard of to take two-three months to get a full set of results back," she added.

It's still something we're dealing with in B.C.- Dr. Jennifer Gardy

That's because — as a bacterial infection — tuberculosis is typically detected through a culture test where samples are grown in the laboratory and then analyzed.

The problem is tuberculosis bacteria takes a long time to grow.

Not only does that delay a diagnosis, Gardy said, but it can also take time to determine which antibiotic treatment would be most effective against the strain.

But now, researchers are using genomics — the study of genes — to identify the DNA profile of the tuberculosis bacteria strain.

With the TB sample's genetic information, researchers would be able to accurately diagnose the disease within days, Gardy said.

They could also determine whether the strain is part of an outbreak, what to treat it with, and whether it is antibiotic resistant, she added.

Not just a problem of the past

Gardy acknowledged that many people might be wondering why a disease like tuberculosis — for which an antiobiotic treatment was developed in the late 1940's — is the subject of a new research project.

"The reality is that it's still something we're dealing with in B.C. and it's still something we're dealing with around the world."

There are around 250 cases of tuberculosis in B.C. ever year, but Gardy said the disease is most prevelent in the developing world.

In Canada, tubercolosis affects the most vulnerable members of society including new migrants, and people dealing with housing and addiction issues, she said.

The healthcare system is also burdened, she added, as tuberculosis treatment often involves long dosages of antibiotics over six to nine months that may have to be supervised by nursing personnel.

Gardy said this collaboration with Oxford University allows for an exchange of data and ideas.

"Everyone wins in a situation like that."

With files from The Early Edition.