A Maritime scientist is behind a remarkable invention that can help to diagnose diseases like tuberculosis.

Christa Brosseau is an analytical chemist at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. She has been working for years to create a fabric that can detect diseases, like tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS.

“I’m really interested in healthcare and diagnostics, particularly in diagnosis at the point of care. So if someone comes to you and they are not feeling well, you can tell them within half an hour what’s wrong with them,” says Brosseau. “Here, it’s not a big deal to do that, but in places like South Africa, 40 per cent of people don’t return to the clinic for a diagnosis or treatment.”

Brosseau and her students are working on a chemical sensor that can be built into fabric.

They first make Nanoparticles, which are particles between one and 100 nanometres in size, and then aggregate those particles, ending up with a silver Nanoparticle paste. They then place that paste onto the surface of a fabric chip and it is ready to use.

Once that fabric chip interacts with biological fluid, like sweat, saliva, or urine, it is scanned for information.

“The laser hits the sample, and some of the light is scattered and most of it is scattered in a way which is not useful, in terms of chemical analysis. But a really small proportion of the light is scattered in a way in which we can get a signature of the molecule,” says Brosseau. “Just like every person has their own DNA signature, every chemical has their own vibrational signature. From that scattered light, we can then identify what is that chemical on the surface of the fabric chip.”

The technology picks up disease biomarkers and the scientists are able to get results in approximately 30 seconds, by using hand held units, the size of a TV remote control, to scan the samples. The size of the units makes them convenient for working in the field.

One of the early motivations for this work was to try and better understand how tuberculosis is transmitted.

“If you could deploy fabric chips in areas like taxi cabs, school classrooms, and monitor them regularly, you could get a good idea how tuberculosis, for example, is traveling through a population,” says Brosseau. “We saw that the fabric could be reused after washing it over and over again.”

Eventually, the scientists hope to see the technology deployed in exercise headbands, or cloth inserts in infant diapers, to better monitor the state of health.

The fabric is three to five years away from being wearable, but once it's ready, Brosseau says it will change the future of diagnostics.

With files from CTV Atlantic's Kelly Linehan