Skip navigation

Breakthrough technology vastly improves lung infection diagnosis

New identification methods for non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) have caused a paradigm-shift in standard operating procedures in the UK and abroad. Researchers at Northumbria University and the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle have developed a novel culture medium which isolates rapidly-growing mycobacteria (RGM) from the sputum of cystic fibrosis (CF) patients. This innovative approach has led to faster and cheaper NTM diagnostics, improving the treatment available to CF and bronchiectasis patients.


Patients with lung conditions, such as cystic fibrosis (CF) and bronchiectasis, are susceptible to infections caused by non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) – environmental microorganisms, mainly found in water and soil. Infection with NTM can manifest as severe cough, chest pain, breathing difficulties, fatigue and weight loss. Left untreated, NTM can permanently damage lung tissue and lead to NTM lung disease, a condition that can severely affect quality of life.


Early detection of NTM is essential, however, two main challenges often prevent this. Firstly, NTM is diagnosed through sputum samples, which are typically small in volume and deplete when subjected to the decontamination processes required by conventional testing protocols. Secondly, mycobacteria grow slowly, so can remain undetected if overgrown by other species of microorganisms.


Dr Amanda Jones at Northumbria University, in collaboration with Professor John Perry at the Freeman Hospital and an industrial partner, examined conventional and innovative protocols in NTM diagnostics. Through this work, Dr Jones and partners have successfully developed a novel rapidly-growing mycobacteria (RGM) bacterial growth medium for the isolation of NTM. This new medium has significantly improved pathologists’ ability to isolate NTM mycobacteria, thus improving the diagnosis of NTM. This new medium has also streamlined the testing process (i.e. 70 times less sputum is needed due to the protocol using one testing medium rather than six), reducing the time- and financial-investment required to obtain a result.


This RGM approach to NTM diagnosis is highly beneficial for patients, as it means they can receive faster, more accurate, diagnostics. Furthermore, for patients whose NTM infection would have gone undetected using the previous approach, this process is lifechanging as they are now able to obtain appropriate treatment in a timely manner.


Detailing the importance of this research, Dr Jones stated: “The increased sensitivity of recovering NTM of 94.6% compared to 22.4% for conventional methods has caused a paradigm-shift in standard operating procedures in several hospitals in the UK and overseas […]. It has led to faster/cheaper diagnostics and benefited the treatment of CF/bronchiectasis patients and clinical outcomes.”


This new technology has been widely evaluated in twelve hospital laboratories across six countries and has had a significant impact on laboratory protocols in the cultivation of mycobacteria from both clinical and environmental sources. As a result of this research, six hospitals have changed their standard operating procedures for testing for NTM, including the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, and other hospitals in England, Scotland, Belgium and Germany.

Economic Impact

Latest News and Features

More news

Back to top