A new test for identifying people infected with tuberculosis (TB), one of the leading causes of death worldwide, will shortly be launched by Oxford Immunotec, a new Oxford University spin-off company.
The test improves the speed and accuracy with which the disease can be identified. It has been developed to replace the existing skin test for TB, which is given to 600,000 UK schoolchildren every year.
Oxford Immunotec’s test has come from discoveries made over the last seven years at the University of Oxford by Dr. Ajit Lalvani and collaborators at the Nuffield Department of Medicine, John Radcliffe Hospital. A replacement for the 100-year-old skin test is long overdue but, until now, there has not been a better way of diagnosing infection.
The Oxford Immunotec test is based on patented technology which provides a way of studying a person’s cellular immune response to an infection. Every time someone becomes infected with a disease, the body produces specific cells (white blood cells) to fight the infection. The new test looks to see if the body has produced these cells in response to TB and monitors how their numbers change over time. In this way, it is possible to determine if a person is infected and whether they are effectively fighting the infection. The technique can be used not only for diagnosis of infections, but also for prognosis of disease and monitoring of treatment.
Crucially, the Oxford Immunotec test will also make it possible to accurately identify people who are carrying TB infection, but who have not yet gone on to develop disease. Diagnosing and treating infected people before they go on to develop severe disease and infect others is essential to prevent the spread of TB and save lives.
Since 1998, Dr. Lalvani has used this rapid blood test in double blinded, randomised studies to prove its effectiveness in over 2,000 TB patients and healthy controls in eight different countries. These studies demonstrate that the new test is a radical improvement on the current skin test, and that, unlike the skin test, it works well in people with weaker immune systems, such as children, the elderly and those immunosuppressed with diseases like HIV.
Dr. Peter Wrighton-Smith, CEO of Oxford Immunotec, said: ‘We are extremely excited about this new test which we believe will revolutionise TB control. This test is needed as never before because TB is resurging in the developed world and already parts of the UK have TB rates as high as India. The huge amount of clinical data gathered to date proves this technology works and we are already looking to apply it to other diseases where the cellular immune response is critical, such as HIV, Hepatitis C and Cancer.’