New device may diagnose sepsis in less than 30 minutes
- Clinical Negligence
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge have developed a device that can detect a key biomarker of sepsis in less than a drop of blood, and the process takes less than 30 minutes to complete.
What is sepsis?
Sepsis can develop as a side-effect of an infection, sometimes due to ineffective treatment of the initial infection. It develops when the chemicals released by the immune system to fight an infection cause inflammation throughout the body.
People can develop sepsis after all sorts of infections, including lung, bladder, skin, bone, heart and brain infections. It can also develop after surgery, and we often see cases where a patient has developed sepsis and septic shock as a result of a delay in diagnosing a bowel perforation during or after surgery. In those cases, the patient often develops intestinal failure and require a stoma.
If sepsis is allowed to develop without swift and effective treatment, the patient can go into septic shock and this can lead to long term injuries and sometimes death. The life-threatening blood poisoning condition is estimated to claim the lives of around 52,000 individuals in the UK a year.
Current diagnostic methods are often symptomatic and are combined with tests checking for general markers of infection or organ damage. Experts at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also add that: "Many of the signs and symptoms of sepsis, such as fever and difficulty breathing, are the same as in other conditions, making sepsis hard to diagnose in its early stages."
A new diagnostic tool, however, may be able to quickly identify sepsis biomarkers in just a tiny amount of blood.
A key biomarker for sepsis is interleukin-6 (IL-6), a protein produced by the body when inflammation occurs. Scientists believe that detecting this biomarker is a good way to diagnose sepsis because levels of IL-6 in the blood tend to increase before any other symptoms of sepsis appear. However, the blood concentration of IL-6 remains too low for current tests to pick up on it.
Researchers from MIT have developed a device that they believe is sensitive enough to identify IL-6, in less than a pinprick’s amount of blood.
How does the device work?
Researcher and first author, Dan Wu, a doctoral student at MIT said: "For an acute disease such as sepsis, which progresses very rapidly and can be life threatening, it's helpful to have a system that rapidly measures these non-abundant biomarkers…. You can also frequently monitor the disease as it progresses."
Wu and colleagues' diagnostic tool is a microfluidics device that is able to detect key biomarkers in extremely small amounts of body fluid. This particular device uses microbeads "coated" with antibodies.
Blood is introduced to the device using a pipette, and the antibodies will latch onto the IL-6 biomarkers. Another part of the device then uses electrodes and beads that have captured IL-6 and emits an electric signal for each IL-6 bead that passes through, allowing researchers to identify the concentration levels of the protein within the blood sample.
The entire process can be carried out in under 25 minutes, and the amount of blood required is around 5 micro-liters (25% of the total volume drawn through a finger prick).
The tool is also able to detect particularly low concentrations of IL-6, as low as 16 picograms per milliliter (even lower than the biomarker concentration needed to identify sepsis), suggesting the device is very sensitive to the presence of key biomarkers in general.
Scientists have argued that the pioneering tool is highly adaptable and could be set to detect other key sepsis biomarkers, such as interleukin-8, C-reactive protein, and procalcitonin, among others.
This has in-turn led researchers to add that they see no reason why, in the future, others could not adapt this tool to screen for biomarkers of other conditions.
Sepsis can prove fatal if not recognised and treated in time. The cases we have been involved in focus on delays in the diagnosis and treatment of sepsis, as the life threatening condition is often misdiagnosed for another illness. Increasingly the stories we read about sepsis have tragic outcomes and so it is great news to see that researchers at MIT have developed a device that is able to quickly identify key sepsis biomarkers within just a tiny amount of blood, in such a short period of time. Hopefully this will make a difference to the number of cases of sepsis that are misdiagnosed.
Helen Dolan is a Senior Partner and Head of Clinical Negligence at Potter Rees Dolan Serious Injury Solicitors. Should you have any queries about clinical negligence issues and wish to speak with Helen or any other member of the team please contact us on 0161 237 5888. Alternatively, you can contact Helen directly here.