New Blood Test Could Save Lives, Money From Bad Medicine

A new type of blood test can help doctors determine whether a patient has a bacterial or viral infection, saving them from overusing antibiotics.

A disturbing health trend in recent years is the rise of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.  Many bacteria-based diseases, such as tuberculosis and salmonella, are now increasing due to antibiotics such as amoxicillin and penicillin.  The most commonly noted reason for antibiotic resistance has everything to do with the overuse of antibiotics to treat infections, even when they are viral or fungal.  Now, a new rapid blood test helps determine whether an infection is viral or bacterial, thus saving use on antibiotics, and perhaps saving countless lives and money.

Researchers at Duke University, backed by a grant from the Defense Advance Research Project Agency (DARPA) arm of the Department of Defense,  have determined that a specific genetic fingerprint of sorts helps the body express being sick.  The Duke researchers test for this particular fingerprint to determine the form of infection.  In order to test for this, the researchers did a live test on more than 100 patients in a hospital emergency with various bacterial and viral infections.  The tests returned with the correct infection with about 90% accuracy, verified by traditional tests.

The benefit of this particular blood test is its speed: The Duke researchers were able to get a result on the test within 12 hours.  While that can still be a lot of time, it is a vast improvement over traditional blood tests, which can can take at least a couple days to confirm.  Such timing is critical, and can minimize the use of antibiotics if it turns out there is a viral infection instead.  By not using antibiotics, the chance of an infectious strain of bacteria being resistant to antibiotics becomes less likely.

The Duke researchers have posted their findings to Science Translational Medicine, a branch of Science Magazine, in an article called "A Host-Based RT-PCR Gene Expression Signature to Identify Acute Respiratory Viral Infection."  The researchers are now looking to patent the test for future use.  DARPA backed the study, on the grounds that a rapid blood test would be incredibly useful in properly treating victims of a bioterror attack. 

The Duke study comes shortly after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study on antibiotic overuse.  The CDC concluded that antibiotic overuse is threatening lives, and thus must be curtailed.  This blood test may be a step in the right direction.

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