McMaster tuberculosis researchers win grants for innovative work

Dr. Leyla Soleymani and Dr. Ponnambalam Ravi Selvaganapathy are among 17 Canadian scientists to win $100,000 health research grants from Grand Challenges Canada.
A handheld electronic device developed at McMaster University can detect tuberculosis in saliva samples. (Courtesy Christopher Butcher )

Two Hamilton scientists are receiving a nation-wide honour for innovative approaches to diagnosing tuberculosis, a deadly but preventable disease.

McMaster University’s Dr. Leyla Soleymani and Dr. Ponnambalam Ravi Selvaganapathy are among 17 Canadian scientists who have each won a $100,000 research grant from Grand Challenges Canada, a federal government program recognizing innovations in global health.

Soleymani, assistant professor in the department of engineering physics, focused her research on rapid diagnosis of tuberculosis. Soleymani and her team created a handheld, solar-rechargeable device for diagnosing TB at the bedside.

"For us in Canada, we may not appreciate the global TB challenge," Soleymani said. "Over 1.5 million people worldwide die from TB."

Soleymani is using India as her model, a country that has a high TB prevalence rate and is resource-poor, she said. About 2.3 million new cases of TB are diagnosed in India annually.

The device electronically analyses a saliva sample. It will tell doctors if the patient has the bacteria in their system and what the bacteria count is.

The device can determine if a patient has TB in a matter of hours, rather than existing test methods that can take weeks. It's charged by solar power, so that it can be used in remote areas.

Soleymani said the grant is exactly what she needed at this stage of her research.

"It was the money we needed to move from the lab into the field," she said.

Soleymani and her team at McMaster now plan to create a working prototype for use in India.

Selvaganapathy's research has been looking at new ways to cut the testing time for tuberculosis, and to diagnose and detect drug resistance.

Cell culture is the main method currently used to diagnose TB, but it takes 4-6 weeks to test a sample. Selvaganapathy is working on techniques to reduce testing time to a few hours.

These are important improvements, because quick detection of TB can make treatment easier and reduce the chances of a patient spreading the disease to others.

The grant money comes from Grand Challenges Canada's Stars in Global Health program, which allocates money provided by the federal government's Development Innovation Fund. It supports research and development projects that integrate science, technology, social and business innovation, and which are aimed at improving health in Canada and overseas.