Biotechnology, Medical News

New technology can diagnose bacterial infections in minutes

The new technology utilizes a microchip which analyzes a droplet of bodily fluid such as blood, urine, or saliva using chemicals that may determine the specific protein signature of an infection. The device connects to a smartphone and displays the findings, which is around the size of a USB stick. Photo credit: Wade Hemsworth/McMaster University.

Researchers from McMaster University’s colleges of engineering, biochemistry, and medicine have collaborated to develop a hand-held, rapid diagnostic test for bacterial infections that can give accurate, reliable results in less than an hour, eliminating the need to send samples to a lab.

Their proof-of-concept study, which was published today in Nature Chemistry, details the test’s ability to diagnose urinary tract infections from genuine clinical samples. The test is being modified to detect different types of bacteria as well as to diagnose viruses quickly, including COVID-19. They also want to see if it can be used to identify cancer markers.

“It’s going to mean that patients can get better treatment, faster results and avoid serious complications. It can also avoid the unnecessary use of antibiotics, which is something that can buy us time in the battle against antimicrobial resistance,” says Leyla Soleymani, the paper’s co-corresponding author and an associate professor of engineering physics.

A diagram showing how the new technology utilizes Soleymani’s team’s electrochemical engineering technique. (Credit: Richa Pandey/Nature Chemistry)

“This will give doctors the science to support what they already suspect based on their skills and experience,” says co-corresponding author Yingfu Li, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences.

A hand-held device, similar to a blood-glucose monitor, is used with the new DNA-based technique. Using chemicals that can identify the particular protein signature of an infection, a microchip examines a droplet of body fluid such as blood, urine, or saliva. The device, which is approximately the size of a USB stick, connects to a smartphone and presents the results.

The innovation blends Soleymani’s team’s electrochemical engineering technique with Li’s and his colleague Dingran Chang’s biochemical technology. They collaborated with Todd Hoare, a professor of chemical engineering, and infectious disease physician Marek Smeija, a professor of medicine who gave samples from actual patients.

“As scientists, we want to enable things,” says Li, “We are knowledgeable in different scientific and engineering principles, and when you put them together to help people, that’s a special feeling. Having the chance to impact society is the reason we all do this work.”

Currently, samples are generally sent to laboratories to be cultured, a procedure that might take days. Providing patients with quick findings can help to prevent infection, enhance patients’ quality of life, and make physicians’ more efficient.

The new technique can distinguish between bacteria strains that can be treated with antibiotics and bacterium strains that are resistant to antibiotics, a crucial distinction that can aid in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, or AMR.

“Clinicians identified testing delays as a problem that needed to be resolved,” says Soleymani, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Miniaturized Biomedical Devices. “We wanted to build a system that could give as much information as possible to the physician during the patient’s first visit.”

Using samples from a Hamilton clinic, the researchers are evaluating an adaption of the same technique for the virus that causes COVID-19.

“This technology is very versatile and we’re getting very close to using the same technology for COVID-19 testing,” says Li, who is also a member of McMaster’s Michael Groote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

The researchers are looking into regulatory approvals and business collaborations in order to get the technology into widespread usage as soon as possible, not only in Canada but across the world, particularly in areas where lab testing is restricted or non-existent.

“I think this technology is a step toward democratizing disease diagnosis and management,” says lead author Richa Pandey, a post-doctoral research fellow in Soleymani’s lab. “This is technology that can go anywhere in the world where testing is needed.”

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