A researcher and associate professor at the University of New Mexico who holds seven patents that involve technology to quickly diagnose tuberculosis and other lung diseases has patented a rapid diagnostic breath test for TB and pneumonia. Graham Timmins, Ph.D., at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, said the rapid breath-test technology uses ureases, enzymes expressed by many bacteria.
“If you look at serious lung pathogens,” Timmins said in a news release, “most of them have it.”
In his work, Timmins uses stable isotope-related composites and free radical biology for a better diagnosis and treatment of some common and generally fatal conditions.
Patients inhale the stable isotope-labeled tracer compound through an inhaler or a nebulizer. The technology is able to fill the patient’s entire lung and, upon exhalation, identify areas of lung infection, all within minutes, the inventor said.
“You can screen for tuberculosis,” Timmins said. “You can see if somebody’s got pneumonia. You might be able to see the difference between viral and bacterial pneumonia.”
The patents on Timmins’ quick breath-test equipment led to the establishment of Avisa Pharma in Santa Fe, which has already raised $8 million. Avisa’s initial clinical development is based on the breath test to address TB, with plans to grow into other areas of research such as cystic fibrosis and pneumonia. Most of Timmins’ research is built on the premise of speed.
“What we’re trying to do is have a very, very rapid screening test for TB so the whole thing could be over in five or 10 minutes,” he said.
Currently, the quickest diagnostic test for TB takes about three hours, and the technology employed is not really portable. TB is most common in developing countries where easy transportation is limited; for example, a patient may need a full day to travel to a clinic, or a researcher or doctor to travel to an area to assess for any possible TB cases.
“With this,” Timmins said, “you could put everything in a backpack and you could just cycle to a village and test a whole lot of people. If somebody can be diagnosed and have their drug susceptibility determined in that single encounter, then you don’t lose them to follow-up. That’s a major improvement.”
One of his other patents utilized the breath test for the diagnosis of pseudomonas aeruginosa in patients with cystic fibrosis. It’s currently very difficult to eradicate this bacteria once it is established, although it can be successfully eliminated if caught early. Timmins expects the breath test to greatly improve the lives of some patients with cystic fibrosis.
Despite the fact that patents are important and pharmaceuticals may show revenue, Timmins emphasized that research questions are what really pushes his buttons.
“The reason you do it is to get at these questions,” he said. “Most smart people just like working problems.”