Friday, December 05, 2003


One of the winners in this week’s Development Marketplace was a project that is to train the giant African pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus) to screen sputum samples for signs of tuberculosis.

The project is being developed by APOPO, a Belgian research organization working on demining. I suppose that everyone knows that left-over land mines are a big problem in many developing countries, and the development of a new, cost effective tool for sniffing out the mines would be very important to millions of people. The APOPO people have some 300 rats in a colony that is now on its fifth generation (nine generations are expected to be needed to breed docile animals that can do this work.) They have developed conditioned response methods for training the animals to sniff out specific substances, and find the rats can do so cheaply and with great accuracy. The approach is to be tried in a real life situation in Mozambique soon.

I actually was the project officer for a project funding Cricetomys research many years ago. It seems that these animals in the wild are primarily vegetarians, and are in fact a desired bush meat in West Africa. Our project was to try to develop them into a form of micro-livestock. Small animals, like rabbits and guinea pigs, can be a very good form of livestock in poor communities. The rabbit-sized Cricetomys might do quite well if enough development went into developing a breed with the right characteristics.

If you want to know about these guys as pets, try this article from Rat and Mouse Gazette.

We sometimes get inflated ideas about the applications of science to development. The development of the potential of this species is an example in which very simple research could eventually have great benefits for poor people. The facilities needed are modest, but smart, well trained scientists can do a lot with an innovative approach!

Screening sputum for TB is a relatively slow and costly process now, requiring microscopic examination of the specimens. If as expected, a small colony of rats, cheap to maintain, could screen 2,000 samples a day, the technology could be very widely applied. Tuberculosis kills around 2 million people a year.

Using animals to search for buried landmines, if they can do so in a safe and cost-effective manner, would perhaps not be as globally important as finding a better way to diagnose TB, but it would be important. That this possibility has been developed by a small team working at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania is impressive.

Way to go, APOPO!

No comments: