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A new blood test developed by researchers in North Carolina has been shown to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections.
The blood test has been designed to measure the gene expression of certain components of the immune system, which should allow doctors to identify whether the infection a patient is suffering from is bacterial or viral.
This distinction is crucial, as bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, whereas viral infections cannot, and prescribing antibiotics for viral infections only adds to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
‘Antibiotic resistance has been described as ‘one of the biggest health threats of our time’…’
Antibiotic resistance has been described as ‘one of the biggest health threats of our time’, and bold warnings have been issued explaining that if we do not refine our use of the drugs, in the future we may no longer be able to perform routine operations or use chemotherapy, and many could end up dying from illnesses commonly treatable today.Antibiotics work by targeting properties of bacteria that are unique and fundamental to them, such as blocking their ability to synthesize proteins or damaging their cell wall. The reason antibiotics can work so well is because the properties we target have no counterparts in human cells and therefore treatment can be given with minimal side effects on ourselves.
The problem of resistance arises as bacteria mutate, and there are a number of ways in which bacteria can do this. One way bacteria can counter the effects of antibiotics is by altering the drug’s target, such as the cell wall, so it is no longer vulnerable to the antibiotic. Bacteria can also create enzymes which inactivate the antibiotic or can create a ‘pump’ to remove the drug from their cells.
It only takes a single bacterium to acquire one of these changes to result in an antibiotic resistant infection. Bacteria multiply at a very fast rate and thus if even one bacterium mutates, and the antibiotic clears every other normal bacterial cell involved in the infection, that single mutated bacterium can rapidly divide, increase in numbers resulting in an antibiotic resistant infection.
‘The overuse of antibiotics makes it far more likely that bacteria will acquire mutations that make them resistant…’
An astounding 50% of antibiotics prescribed are given to patients in unnecessary circumstances, such as in viral infection. The properties of viruses are very different to bacteria and therefore antibiotics are ineffective against infections caused by viruses. The overuse of antibiotics makes it far more likely that bacteria will acquire mutations that make them resistant, meaning our antibiotics are slowly but surely becoming ineffective.
The new blood test developed by scientists at Duke University in North Carolina managed to distinguish between bacterial and viral infection with an accuracy of 87% in a study on 317 patient blood samples.
Here in the UK, the Longitude Prize, a £10 million grant, was chosen by the public to be invested in antibiotic research with the aim to design a test that will conclusively distinguish between bacterial and viral infection.
The new blood test in question could provide a good foundation for further research to be done, allowing conclusive and accurate diagnosis of bacterial infection. Unfortunately, the blood test requires ten hours of analysis and so would be of minimal use in a GP environment where most over-prescription takes place. However, with the Longitude Prize pushing for new research into a quick and easy test to confirm bacterial infection, this new blood test has the potential to do big things for such a topical issue.
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