UNITED KINGDOM — UK researchers have developed a test they say might quickly identify sepsis, a potentially fatal complication from an infection.
Scientists at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde developed an experimental microelectrode device that analyzes a patient’s blood and provides results as quickly as 2.5 minutes. Current testing methods for sepsis can take up to 72 hours.
This is important given that every hour without diagnosis and treatment increases the chance of dying. The research was published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.
Sepsis is caused by the overreaction of the body’s immune system to an infection or injury meaning that it also starts to attack organs and tissues.
It can be treated with antibiotics if it is diagnosed early, but can lead to organ failure and death if left untreated.
About 6 million people around the world die from sepsis every year, with 52,000 of those in the UK, according to the UK Sepsis Trust.
It is difficult to diagnose, with initial symptoms similar to gastroenteritis, flu or a chest infection.
According to the UK Sepsis Trust, the following symptoms may be a sign of the condition: slurred speech or confusion, extreme shivering or muscle pain, passing no urine in a day, severe breathlessness, feeling like you’re going to die, and mottled or discolored skin.
Doctors currently monitor heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate to diagnose sepsis, as well as performing a blood test which takes between 12 and 72 hours to provide results.
Now researchers have developed this small device that tests for interleukin-6 (IL-6), one of the biomarkers of sepsis, in the blood.
The molecule is secreted by the immune system, and many sepsis patients show increased levels of IL-6.
“At the moment, the 72-hour blood test is a very labor-intensive process but (this) type of test we envisage could be at the bedside and involve doctors or nurses being able to monitor levels of sepsis biomarkers for themselves,” study author Damion Corrigan, from the department of Biomedical Engineering at Strathclyde, said in a statement.
“It’s not just saving lives, a lot of people who survive sepsis suffer life changing effects, including limb loss, kidney failure and post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Corrigan. “The test could stop a lot of suffering.”
The device is also capable of detecting what kind of infection a patient has and recommending an antibiotic to treat it.
“The implications for this are massive, and the ability to give the right antibiotic at the right time to the right patient is extraordinary,” said study author Dr. David Alcorn of the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, Scotland.
“I can definitely see this having a clear use in hospitals, not only in this country, but all round the world.”
The researchers have applied for grant funding to carry out further research, and plan to carry out clinical trials.
To make and use each device would cost less than £20 ($26), according to the scientists’ estimates.
‘Not an absolute diagnostic’
However, Mervyn Singer, professor of intensive care medicine at University College London, disagrees with these claims.
Singer told CNN via telephone that a device that can detect biomarkers quickly is potentially useful, but IL-6 is not specific to sepsis.
“They’re measuring something that goes up with any inflammatory condition,” said Singer, adding that levels of IL-6 can remain normal in some sepsis patients. “It’s not an absolute diagnostic.”
Singer explained that sepsis is an umbrella syndrome for many kinds of infections, and various teams of researchers have struggled to find a definitive test because there is no fixed pattern to it.
“It’s very unlikely that there would be one single test,” said Singer, who called the idea a “holy grail.”
In response, the research team said initial results are encouraging, but research is at an early stage.
Lynn McPherson, a university spokesperson, said the recent paper proves the concept with one marker, and although the presence of IL-6 is not definitive, the researchers have designed the device to have eight sensors so that they can add more, creating a sepsis panel.
Dr. Ron Daniels, CEO of the UK Sepsis Trust, believes that testing methods that allow earlier diagnosis and treatment of sepsis, like the IL-6 device, would save at least 14,000 lives per year in the UK.
“More people die in the UK every year from sepsis than from breast, bowel and prostate cancer combined,” said Daniels in a statement.
“A system which can place results to aid diagnosis of sepsis into the clinicians’ hand at the bedside has the power to speed its treatment and save lives.”