New strains of Clostridium difficile are making the diarrhoea-causing bacteria a global health problem. In hospitals especially, the bacteria can be extremely harmful. But a new instrument devised by Professor Chris Probert at The University of Bristol and Norman Ratcliffe from the University of the West of England (UWE) may help limit its spread.
Professor Probert, a gastroenterologist, spent many years dealing with patients with diarrhoea, and he noted that these patients' nurses could tell, 'who has got what kind of diarrhoea by some of the features of the stool. I stored that information away.' Likewise, his patients with Colitis and Crone's Disease often remarked that they knew when, 'they were going to get an attack of colitis or Crone's because the smell is different.'
He began working with Norman Ratcliffe, Professor of Analytic and Sensor Science at UWE, who had previously been looking at tainted Parma ham, rotting potatoes and mouldy wheat. 'We've been working together for about eight or nine years now,' explains Professor Probert, 'and it has been quite productive.' Initial funding enabled them to build a prototype device which could smell the odour of stool samples and then tell which were infected with Clostridium difficile. The results were productive.
Saving healthcare resources
Current guidelines for analysing stool samples, says Probert, suggest it takes about eight days. In real life, he says, it takes three or four days. 'What we are hoping with our device,' says Probert, is that it should, 'give us an answer within 30 minutes of a bedpan being filled on the ward. Then you can start the diagnosis and treatment. These aren't the kind of infections you want to be treating blindly. You want a real diagnosis because giving the patient yet more antibiotics generates more problems.' It's about prevention rather than cure. Together with developing the Odoreader for general use they are also exploring the use of the device for other bugs such as the norovirus. Along with the human cost, Probert estimates it costs the European Union alone, 'several billions every year to manage Clostridium difficile and its consequences. So if you can do the same kinds of sums to cut off ward closures from noro virus it's a very big saving for limited healthcare funds.