Open Eye: Space sensor used for TB scanning

How technology designed for Mars may save lives down on Earth
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The Independent Online

Miniaturised sensing equipment first developed for Beagle 2, the British Mars lander which disappeared en route to the red planet in 2003, could become a lifesaving new tool for diagnosing tuberculosis in developing countries.

The Wellcome Trust biomedical charity has awarded scientists at The Open University, where the Beagle 2 equipment was developed, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, £1.3m to develop a portable device capable of analysing patients' sputum to detect traces of TB infection.

The shoebox-sized device, known as a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, was originally developed to detect traces of life on Mars. One of the challenges overcome by the Beagle 2 team at The Open University's Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute was to make the equipment light and robust for space travel.

Scientists now believe they can adapt the technology to make a spectrometer to detect TB with greater accuracy than the current commonly used technique, and without the need for specialised laboratories, making the cost lower.

If they succeed, it will have the greatest impact in developing countries, where TB kills most of its two million annual victims. Currently, diagnosing the disease in these countries relies mainly on a technique called smear microscopy, a labour-intensive process.

The development research will be led by Open University planetary scientists Professor Colin Pillinger, who headed the Beagle 2 mission, and Dr Geraint "Taff" Morgan. The device will be tested in the field in Zimbabwe. "Chemicals have their own unique 'signature'," says Dr Morgan. "The bacterium that causes TB has a special coating and it is the pattern of chemicals in this coating that the mass spectrometer will be searching for.

"The thing with developing technology for space missions is that it forces you to push yourself and think outside the box when you're looking for new solutions to challenging problems."

The Wellcome Trust funded development of the original mass spectrometer on the Beagle 2 mission to Mars. Professor Colin Pillinger, the driving force behind the well-known mission, praised the Trust's vision.

"The Wellcome Trust had the foresight to see that the miniaturisation process needed to develop a mass spectrometer capable of fitting onto a spacecraft could have applications far closer to home," he said.