Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Commonly referred to as ‘blood poisoning,’ sepsis is a deadly condition caused by the body’s inflammatory reaction to a bacterial infection that often results in tissue and organ damage.
Now, preliminary studies at King’s College London indicate that a simple genetic test can diagnose the condition in two hours instead of the two days required for a traditional diagnosis, according to a new study in the open access journal PLOS ONE.
“Sepsis is a hidden killer, causing nearly a third of all hospital deaths. Rapid antibiotic treatment for the condition is vital – every minute counts,” said study author Graham Lord, a professor of medicine at King’s College London. “Yet current diagnostic methods can take up to two days, so an accurate diagnostic test that can be carried out at the patient’s bedside is urgently needed.”
To find a biomarker for sepsis, the international team of researchers looked at bits of genetic material known as microRNAs, which encode and regulate DNA – particularly with respect to an immune response. The study scientists took blood samples from three groups of patients at two hospitals in the UK and Sweden: those with sepsis, patients with a similar condition called Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS), and healthy patients.
Genetic material from the blood samples was amplified to determine which microRNAs were more prevalent as a result of sepsis. According to their report, the team was able to find a group of microRNAs that were more active in the sepsis patients, denoting a potential biomarker for the condition.
“We have for the first time identified a group of biomarkers in the blood that are good indicators of sepsis,” Lord said. “We have shown that it is possible to detect these markers by screening a patient’s blood in the ward, a process which can deliver results within two hours. This is an extremely exciting development which has the potential to completely transform the management of this severe disease and save thousands of lives worldwide every year.”
“These are promising early findings, and now we need to test this approach in a large clinical trial,” he added.
The researchers noted that sepsis appears similar to SIRS, but only sepsis responds to treatment with antibiotics. This distinction makes it vital for clinicians to be able to differentiate the two conditions as using antibiotics in non-sepsis cases can be both ineffective and potentially add to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
“Not only would an accurate diagnostic test improve outcomes for patients, but it would contribute to tackling the ongoing problem of antibiotic resistance by allowing clinicians to distinguish between SIRS and sepsis and diagnose these severe conditions more accurately,” Lord said.
In an interview with BBC News, the King’s College professor laid out a potential timetable for when the study results could translate into an actual diagnostic test.
“If our early phase result holds up in a large trial, it could have significant effects in saving thousands of lives and reducing the use of unnecessary antibiotics,” he said. “If we can prove its value in prospective trials, we can quite rapidly translate it into NHS clinical care.”