It's a device that can sniff out tuberculosis. A group of researchers from India and the US is developing the hand-held 'Electronic Nose', which has the potential to diagnose TB in symptomatic patients.
Similar to the alcohol breath analyser used by police, the device will use sensors developed in California to track biomarkers - molecules in breath that can be used as an indicator of a particular disease state - that may identify TB.
The development of the Electronic Nose is the result of collaboration between the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in New Delhi and Next Dimension Technologies in California.
The researchers are being awarded a two-year, $950,000 grant from Grand Challenges Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to further develop and test this ground-breaking technology.
"The first phase of the grant will be used for collecting biomarkers from people, including TB patients from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Sensors in the device will be trained to identify disease molecules," Ranjan Nanda, leader researcher, told IANS.
Indian researchers are working with sensors developed in California to track biomarkers in the breath. Those biomarkers may hold promise to identify TB, leading to earlier diagnosis and improved patient treatment.
Figures available with the health ministry show that two deaths occur every three minutes from tuberculosis in India. But these deaths can be prevented with proper care and treatment.
It is estimated that up to 400,000 lives a year can be saved in the developing world by early diagnosis, immediate treatment and reduced transmission of TB, which is second only to HIV/AIDS as the world's most deadly infectious disease.
According to Nanda, the Electronic Nose can be used to detect TB immediately and non-invasively from the patient's breath, replacing time-consuming testing with sputum.
"We hope to take the concept of the Electronic Nose to the next level by developing and testing a prototype of the hand-held, battery-powered device. Our goal is to make the Electronic Nose widely available in poor, remote areas where tuberculosis often breeds and spreads, devastating so many lives," he said.
The team in India has already finished biomarker sampling in Delhi and is likely to complete it in the other three cities by December 2012. "The prototypes will be ready by October 2013 and we except the Electronic Nose will be ready for use by December 2013," he said.
Scientists say Electronic Noses could also be created for early detection of lung cancer and pneumonia, based on signature biomarkers of that disease detectable in a patient's breath.
As far as cost is concerned, Nanda says it would be much cheaper than the conventional sputum testing used in developing countries, but the exact cost is yet to be decided.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), tuberculosis is a major public health problem in India and it accounts for one-fifth of the global TB incident cases.
Each year nearly two million people in India develop TB, of whom around 0.87 million are infectious cases.