New Tool Can Differentiate Between Bacterial and Viral Infections


Students from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom have developed a new diagnostic tool which promises a novel way to detect bacterial infections and prevent the inappropriate use of antibiotics for viral infections.

One of the main ways to prevent inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics for viral infections is by creating better diagnostic tools to quickly identify bacterial infections, and a team of students from the United Kingdom are building such a tool.

Ever since research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pew Charitable Trusts was released earlier this year indicating that at least 30% of the antibiotics patients receive in the United States are unnecessary, this practice has received fair scrutiny. The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, emphasized that this excess of 47 million antibiotics are often prescribed for respiratory infections such as common colds, sore throats, sinus and ear infections, as well as other illnesses brought on by viruses. Giving antibiotics to patients with viral infections not only fails to offer any treatment value, but it is a contributing factor when it comes to the problem of antibiotic resistance. The more antibiotics that are administered, the more opportunities that bacterial pathogens have to develop resistance to these life-saving drugs and mutate into more virulent superbugs.

While researchers around the world have been working on new tools such as ones to diagnose tuberculosis infections caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium, a team of students frpm the University of Sheffield are developing a device designed to rapidly identify bacterial infections. The team known as iGEM Sheffield has taken on the task of developing a device that works to slow down the progression of antibiotic resistance. Their tool is designed to detect the important distinction between infections that are viral and those that are bacterial. The device uses genetically engineered Escherichia coli (E. coli) to detect the presence of a protein called lipocalin, which plays a big role in immune response to bacterial infections. Lipocalin is produced in the human body in large quantities to prevent pathogenic bacteria from acquiring the iron that they need to survive and spread. Because lipocalin is not created during the body’s immune response to viruses, if high levels of the protein are detected in a patient, it may indicate the presence of a bacterial infection.

“The main aim behind this project is to create more informed prescriptions to address the ever increasing resistance against antibiotics that we face today,” said Saylee Jangam, a University of Sheffield student and member of the iGEM team, in a recent press release. “What’s even more interesting is that we are using genetically engineered bacteria to detect the presence of bacterial infections in blood—that’s right—using bacteria to detect bacteria.”

The iGEM team—made up of students from a range of science, engineering, and medical backgrounds—says that their device analyzes patient blood samples and mixes them with the genetically modified E. coli. The blood sample will turn fluorescent in the presence of low levels of lipocalins, indicating that an infection is viral rather than bacterial. The students see their tool as one that could be placed in hospitals and doctor’s offices, offering quick diagnostics to identify patients with bacterial infections while helping to avoid the unnecessary prescribing of antibiotics to treat those with viral infections.

The iGEM Sheffield team recently presented the plans for their new tool at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, also known as iGEM 2016, in Boston. By unveiling their recent innovation, the students hope to contribute to the development of a real and usable tool in the medical community.

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