New fast, low-cost TB test

A scientist in Taiwan has unveiled what he describes as the first low-cost and efficient test kit for identifying the tuberculosis (TB) bacteria—the killer of around 1.5 million people worldwide every year.

Quick service: The new TB test kit can assay samples in less than 5 minutes, says its inventor.

“If used with the help of professionals, the accuracy of the test kit is around 98%," says Prof. Lai Hsin-Chih, head of the department of medical biotechnology and laboratory science at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University. He put the accuracy of existing kits at 50-60%, claiming his was more accurate because it tests for “the unique nucleic acid of TB" rather than antibodies, as existing tests do.

“Compared with the traditional ways of testing TB patients, our test kit is much cheaper," Prof. Lai added. He said the production cost of the kit is less than $1.50 (Rs67.65).

Prof. Lai said he already had patent rights for the kit in Taiwan and has sought rights with the US authorities too.


Lose weight, drink less, avoid breast cancer

Up to one-third of breast cancer cases in Western countries could be avoided through lifestyle correction alone, suggested researchers at a European breast cancer conference in Barcelona last week.

In the 1980s and 1990s, breast cancer rates increased steadily, paralleling a rise in obesity and the use of oestrogen-containing hormones after menopause. After studies several years ago linked hormone replacement therapy to cancer, millions of women abandoned the treatment, leading to a sharp drop in breast cancer rates. Experts at the conference said a similar reduction might be seen if women ate healthier and exercised more. Michelle Holmes of Harvard University, a researcher on cancer and lifestyle, said people might wrongly think their risk depends more on their genes than their lifestyle—but changing diet and nutrition is arguably easier.

Carlo La Vecchia, head of epidemiology at the University of Milan, cited figures from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organisation), which estimates that 25-30% of breast cancer cases could be avoided if women were thinner and exercised more. However, as the American Cancer Society website notes, the risk appears to increase for women who gain weight as adults, but not for those overweight since childhood. Robert Baan, a cancer expert with the agency, added that it isn’t clear if women who lose weight can lower their risk to the level of a woman who was never fat.

Drinking less alcohol might help everyone, however. Experts estimate that more than a couple of drinks a day can boost the risk of breast cancer by 4-10%.


Antibiotic use reduces HIV deaths in Africa

Aid against AIDS: A common drug has been added to the African arsenal against HIV.

The drug, co-trimoxazole (Septrim, Bactrim and other brands) is used widely to combat pneumonia and ear and urinary tract infections, and also has some antimalarial properties. Among HIV-positive people on a course of antiretroviral therapy (ART) with counts of CD4 immune cells lower than 200 cells per microlitre, for those given co-trimoxazole alongside the anti-HIV drugs, the risk of dying during the first three months fell by 59% compared with those who were not on the antibiotic. At 72 weeks, the reduced risk of mortality persisted, although it evened out to 35% overall. In addition, co-trimoxazole cut the frequency of malaria by 26%.

These benefits, together with the very low side effects, suggest doctors in malaria-prone areas could prescribe co-trimoxazole for early stage treatment of HIV as a cost-effective public health strategy.