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New Interactive Map Could Help TB Diagnostics

A new database could make TB diagnostics more efficient

1 min read
New Interactive Map Could Help TB Diagnostics

Tuberculosis is notoriously difficult to diagnose, so researchers are always looking for ways to make the detection process more efficient. One problem that clinicians have struggled with is false positives on the commonly-used TB skin test that can occur in people who were vaccinated against TB as children.

Not all countries use the TB vaccine--the US and Canada, for example, have never used it nationwide--but plenty of others do, and patients often don't remember which vaccines they've had. Now researchers at McGill University in Montreal have created an interactive map that merges disease statistics with TB vaccine policies from 180 countries. The goal is to help ease clinicians' confusion over whether a patient might have been exposed to the vaccine.

Interactive maps have become a popular way to display data in the infectious disease field. The World Health Organization has developed several maps, including one that international travelers can use to determine malaria and rabies risk, and Google Flu Trends helped clinicians and patients keep track of the H1N1 epidemic in 2009. But few have taken the extra step of incorporating policy data.

In the case of the TB vaccine map, adding the policy data was essential because there were no other databases clinicians could turn to for that information. Indeed, the McGill researchers wound up collecting most of the policy data first-hand through surveys and literature searches.

The next challenge for the McGill team will be to enhance the map with country-specific data on other diseases--mainly HIV--that affect TB diagnostics and response to the TB vaccine. The project is described in detail in an article published in PLoS Medicine last month.

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A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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