A device similar to the one made for the unsuccessful Mars mission, Beagle 2 project, may be helpful in identifying the bacterium that causes TB, scientists say.
Researchers from the Open University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine project have plans to conduct experiments with the tiny detection kit, known as the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GC-MS), which they believe can pick out the unique chemical fingerprint of TB.
The scientists have minimised the spectrometer's weight and reduced it to the size of a shoebox, making it possible to use the device in developing countries where TB is rife.
According to researchers, phlegm samples coughed up patients suspected of having the disease are currently checked under a microscope, but this test is unreliable and fails to diagnose up to half the active cases.
"We urgently need an accurate and cost-effective method of diagnosing TB. At the moment, because diagnosis is not accurate, people with TB may have to be seen up to 10 times before they can be started on TB treatment. They may be infectious throughout this period," the BBC quoted Dr Liz Corbett from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as saying.
Dr Geraint Morgan from the Open University strongly believes that GC-MS can provide more accurate test results, and that it will make the testing significantly quicker than current methods.
"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," he said.
The Wellcome Trust has provided a grant of 1.34 million pounds to see whether the technology works.
Dr Ted Bianco, Director of Technology Transfer for the Wellcome Trust, has suggested the device may potentially discriminate between the high numbers of people with latent TB, who simply carry the bacteria without having symptoms or being infectious, and individuals with "active TB", who can die from it or pass it to others.
"If you can build instruments rugged enough to look for life elsewhere in the Solar System, you should be able to crack the problem of detecting TB bacteria in the lung of a patient," he said.
The project has been hailed by Dr. Peter Davies, secretary of TB Alert and a member of the diagnostics group of the Stop TB international campaign.
"We can only diagnose 50 per cent of people using current techniques, so we have got to try any other method of diagnosis that we can. This could be a way of improving that low figure, so it's definitely worth a shot," he said.