European scientists invent new microscope for rapid detection of deadly infections

A group of European scientists have invented a microscope that will allow the fastest ever detection of life-threatening infections caused by bacteria, such as E. coli or Staphylococcus, and conditions such as Meningitis, saving millions of lives every year.

Dubbed the ‘silent killer’, and more commonly known as ‘blood poisoning’, Sepsis is a whole-body inflammatory reaction that kills over 20,000 people per day worldwide, striking regardless of age, gender or fitness and killing more people than prostate cancer, breast cancer and HIV/AIDS combined. It is estimated that 44,000 people die every year from Sepsis in the UK alone.

Sepsis has already claimed the lives of many famous people, including legendary heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, singer Robert Palmer, Superman actor Christopher Reve and Pope John Paul II.

About the size of a small book, the new microscope has the potential to simultaneously detect more than one million biomarkers, the tell-tale signs of Sepsis and many other diseases.

Current techniques can take as long as one day to perform a similar test. This new method, which combines photonics technology, microfluidics and molecular biology, can produce a result in just 30 minutes.

By sending polarised beams of light through birefringent crystals and a cartridge containing a blood drop and an array of receptors, the system is able to detect the interaction of light with the bacteria or proteins captured by the receptors. The intensity of the transmission image is then analysed to provide the physician with an accurate detection of ‘what’, and ‘how much’ bacteria or proteins are present.

With bacteria currently needing to reproduce in large quantities before an accurate diagnosis can be made, this can mean a patient waiting over 24 hours before all the information is at hand to decide a course of treatment. This new device produces sample-to-result processing up to 50 times quicker than current methods. With a condition like Sepsis, where time is of the essence, this looks set to usher in a new era of medical diagnosis.

Developed by the, ‘Scalable point-of-care and label free microarray platform for rapid detection of Sepsis’, or ‘RAIS’, the project is coordinated by ICFO-The Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, Spain and is yet another success story for the Photonics Public Private Partnership. Dr Josselin Pello, senior researcher on the project explains:

Doctors need a quick, reliable way of detecting Sepsis and what stage it has reached. Current methods exist, but they are too slow: they can only look at a couple of parameters at a time and they will not tell the physician what type of bacteria is present that is causing Sepsis. A doctor may not therefore prescribe the correct treatment in time.

“RAIS can simultaneously examine many biomarkers, such as micro-ribonucleic acids or interleukins, and will let you know the bacteria source much earlier, allowing you to choose the correct treatment sooner”, said Dr Pello.

The financial implications of RAIS are very exciting. According to Dr Cindy Rechner, Clinical Trial Coordinator at Thermo Fisher Scientific:

Not only can the RAIS device save lives through faster diagnosis of Sepsis but at under €50 per patient for a test it could remarkably reduce the estimated 10 billion Euros spend each year in Europe and the USA on hospital stays and unnecessary drugs.

With the portable, point-of-care device being easy to use, complete with integrated software, it is thought that not only could this be used in remote areas by junior physicians, but self-diagnosis could be commonplace in the future.

“Although we are a long way off this, a self-diagnosis kit would certainly help with conditions like meningitis where an early diagnosis could be the difference between life and death”, said Dr Pello.

The RAIS project will conclude at the end of 2017 and has received a grant of €2,988,572.50 from the EU via the H2020 and the Photonics Public Private Partnership.

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