ICMR validates new test kit for tuberculosis

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has validated a new, modern and low-cost TB diagnostic kit that has the potential to change the tuberculosis treatment scenario in India.

After testing more than 7,000 samples from 100 sites in eight states, the ICMR found the new test could pick up 60% more TB cases than the conventional method (smear microscopy), ICMR director general Soumya Swaminathan said.

Known as TrueNat MTB, the biggest advantage of the test is that it could be done at a primary healthcare centre without electricity, as the portable machine is run by a battery.

It not only detects if a person is infected with TB, but also checks whether he/she is resistant to Rifampicin - the most preferred drug of choice to fight the dreaded infection.

TrueNat is cheaper than another molecular test called GeneXpert, which is being regularly used in the national programme. Each TrueNat instrument cost about Rs 5 lakh whereas one test costs around Rs 500.

"Based on our validation, the health ministry can negotiate with the company (MolBio Diagnostics) to procure the equipment for the revised national TB control programme," she said.

The ICMR's validation comes weeks after a World Health Organisation's report showed that despite housing the world's maximum number of TB patients (27.9 lakh), India misses out a large number of patients because of a poor surveillance net.

Notwithstanding a 37% rise in the reporting of TB cases to the government since 2013, there are nearly 8.5 lakh missing cases as the total reported cases in 2016 was only 19.36 lakh.

A large number of the missing TB patients are suspected to be drug resistant. Since almost half of the world's drug-resistant cases are in India, medical researchers for long advocated for an improvement in TB diagnostics so that the maximum number of patients are detected at the beginning.

Soumya said the ICMR would also undertake clinical trials of three vaccines against TB in collaboration with the Indian industries that will manufacture these vaccines locally. The vaccines were developed abroad and are currently under various stages of regulatory approval. The vaccine trials would involve nearly 20,000 patients.

A separate study would be undertaken in Jharkhand on 2,000 TB patients and their families in another six months to find out whether improving the diet can reduce the disease burden. The plan is to supplement their calorie and give adequate micro-nutrients.

"While TB is known to be associated with nutrition, there is little documented evidence to show whether dietary intervention can make any difference," said Soumya, who would soon join the WHO headquarters as deputy director general.

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