Global Fight Against Tuberculosis Has Unlikely Animal Ally

Researchers in Tanzania are studying the use of rats to sniff out tuberculosis. Photo by: Briana Marie/devex.com

The global fight against tuberculosis, the leading lethal infectious disease in the world, has a new unlikely ally – rats.  Rats are currently being used as part of a research partnership between nonprofit APOPO, based in Tanzania, and the Tanzanian government’s national tuberculosis program. Tuberculosis (TB) is preventable but difficult to detect and often misdiagnosed. The most common TB test is sputum smear microscopy, where a patient’s sputum is examined under a microscope. Because TB bacterium is not easy to spot, sputum smear microscopy detects less than half of all active TB cases. And clinics in resource-limited areas are often misdiagnosing the disease because of time constraints and poor equipment.

Enter the rat. The rats, trained using a click-and-reward system, sniff the sputum samples and hover their noses over suspected samples. The rats are fast, with a single rat able to test around 100 samples in approximately 20 minutes. APOPO’s research indicates the rats’ accuracy detection rate is 75 percent. Researchers hope the rat performance at detecting TB can be further perfected and scaled up to expand to additional areas. The rats’ work could also lead to the development of an “electronic nose” that could detect TB bacteria through a breathing test for patients.

More about the rats fighting TB here.

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