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Detecting bacterial infection in minutes

Bacterial infections are a major issue in India. From tuberculosis to standard food poisoning, they account for many of the most common infectious conditions in the country.

Image ID: 12945557 (L)Diagnosis can often take several days, or even weeks, if the facilities in the area are not prepared to analyse bacterial samples. A new device developed at Penn State University in the US may change this.

Current blood tests use growth medium to amplify the numbers of bacteria in a sample to a detectable level. Depending on the type of bacteria present this may take some time. Incorporating further tests for antibiotic resistance delays this further.

Doctors in these cases may diagnose based on symptoms alone and prescribe antibiotics just in case it is a bacterial infection. The issue with this situation is that many infections — bacterial or otherwise — mimic closely the symptoms of the flu. By overprescribing antibiotics where they are not needed, the risk of patients developing antibiotic resistance is increased.

Pak Kin Wong, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, may have the solution. The as of yet unnamed device – which Professor Wong co-created – avoids the elongated growth periods of bacteria by using microtechnology to trap single bacterial cells that can then be viewed under an electron microscope.

Currently, the device is in its early phases. It is unable to determine the exact bacteria that is present in the system. It is limited in its current capacity to determining the shape of the bacteria, either spherical, rod-shaped or spiral. This can narrow down the type of bacteria, but cannot give an exact diagnosis.

Efforts are underway to develop complementary testing that would also allow for rapid establishment of the type of bacteria as well as potential drug resistances. However, these may take a number of years to develop.

Wong remains optimistic that even in its current state there are uses for the device. “Urinary tract infections are the most common bacterial infections,” said Wong. “However, over 75 percent of urine specimens sent to a clinical microbiology laboratory are negative. Rapidly ruling out or confirming the presence of a bacterial infection at a clinically relevant concentration will dramatically enhance patient care.”

In India, where antibiotic resistance and access to diagnostics are major issues, further developments in the device could lead it to being a boon. There is the potential for doctors and patients alike to be helped, by delivering faster, more efficient and more accessible diagnoses and allowing an appropriate standard of care to be treated. While talks of a “miracle device” would be premature, this device nonetheless provides some cause for optimism.

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