New medical imaging technology being developed by British researchers allows doctors to see bacteria deep inside patients’ lungs — an unprecedented achievement that may enable detection of harmful bacteria in less than 60 seconds.
Bronchiectasis is caused by inflammation and infection that prevents the airways from clearing mucus. As mucus builds up, more bacteria can grow and the airways become increasingly infected.
In cases like bronchiectasis and other lung diseases, a fast bacteria diagnosis could allow doctors to quickly administer the right medicine to critically ill patients, avoiding unnecessary use of antibiotics. Doctors now must rely on X-rays or fluid samples to diagnose infection, which often leads to inaccurate results, misdiagnosis, or a long wait for results.
Edinburgh, Bath and Heriot-Watt academics co-developed the new approach with funding from the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and others, under a consortium called “Proteus.”
Chemical probes designed by the team are sprayed into patients’ lungs and light up when they attach to specific types of infectious bacteria. This fluorescence is detected using fiber-optic tubes that are small enough to travel deep inside the lungs.
Researchers are also developing optical fibers and detector technologies that allow sensing and imaging deep inside the lung, and are also adapting the technology to detect and treat other infections, such as fungi.
The probes are being tested in studies involving patients with bronchiectasis, and will soon be tested in patients who are being ventilated and suspected of having pneumonia.
If the approach is found to be safe and effective, it could help speed up doctors’ ability to provide life-saving treatments for patients in intensive care units.
Currently, patients in critical condition who are suspected of having an infection are often given strong antibiotics as a precaution, before any infection is confirmed. The tactic is called “blanket approach,” as it covers all potential aggressors causing the infection.
However, these medicines can have serious side effects and are expensive. This blanket approach can also contribute to the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
The Proteus system therefore aims to cut the use of antibiotics by better identifying patients who will and who won’t benefit from the treatment.
“Our team is making rapid progress in bringing together many technologies to help us develop entirely new approaches to diagnose and treat disease at the bedside,” said Kev Dhaliwal, professor at the University of Edinburgh and member of the Proteus consortium, in a press release.
Antibiotics are part of a group of drugs called “antimicrobial agents,” which have been used for the past 70 years to treat infections. However, they have been used so widely and for so long that infectious organisms have evolved and adapted to them, making them less effective.
Each year in the U.S., at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. At least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. Alternatives are necessary to decrease antibiotic use and resistance.
The new technology was recently showcased at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Feb. 15-19 in Austin, Texas.