April 27, 2017 |

Friday Think: Putting a fluorescent spotlight on pneumonia

A new technology could quickly identify pneumonia by using chemicals that light up in lungs when certain bacteria are present.
Young child on a hospital bed surrounded by adults.
Photo: PATH/Bettina Shell-Duncan.

Diagnosing pneumonia is a challenge—and not just in the developing countries where PATH works. Even when state-of-the-art medical technologies are readily available, diagnosing the infection is far from easy. This is especially true for intensive-care patients who might be dealing with multiple health issues.

Researchers in Scotland may have a solution. A new technology under development uses fluorescent imaging to diagnose pneumonia and other bacterial lung infections within 60 seconds. The bedside device—called the Proteus lung probe—is intended to help patients get the correct medications right away and cut back on the use of drugs in intensive care units. Researchers hope the technology’s quick and accurate diagnoses will help prevent the unnecessary use of antibiotics in patients who don’t have bacterial infections.

A recent article by Daniela Semedo, PhD, on Pneumonia Research News digs into how it works. Here’s an excerpt:

“At the heart of the technology—being developed by the Universities of Edinburgh and Bath and Heriot-Watt University—are chemicals that light up when they attach to certain types of bacteria. Small fiber optic tubes detect the fluorescence deep inside patients’ lungs.”

Why is this a big deal? Currently, doctors use a combination of medical history, symptoms, physical exam findings, blood tests, and chest X-rays to diagnose lung and bacterial infections, but because these methods can be slow and inaccurate, patients are often given antibiotics as a precaution. Such overuse contributes to the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance—which one representative from the Proteus lung probe development team calls the “biggest challenge in modern medicine.”

The article expands on the threat posed by overuse of antibiotics and the implications this type of technology could have in the fight against it.

“Drug resistant infection is already a huge global health challenge—and it is getting worse,” said Tim Jinks, head of drug resistant infection at Wellcome Trust. “We need global powers to work together on a number of fronts—from the beginning to the end of the drug and diagnostic development pipeline.”

The Proteus lung probe represents just such an initiative. But, it’s only one part of the solution; no single intervention is enough. Pneumonia is a complex disease that requires a suite of accessible, available, and user-friendly tools. PATH—along with partners worldwide—is contributing to that toolkit by supporting the development and delivery of new, affordable vaccines against major causes of childhood pneumonia and other respiratory infections like the pneumococcus bacterium, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza, group B Streptococcus, and Bordetella pertussis (the cause of whooping cough). Developing, licensing, and introducing lifesaving vaccines that are affordable and accessible even in the world’s poorest countries are essential steps on the path to disease elimination.

Though research on the Proteus lung probe is currently geared toward intensive-care patients with suspected lung infections, any effort to help tackle pneumonia is a move toward tackling the leading cause of death in children younger than five years old in developing countries—a huge achievement by any standard.

Visit Pneumonia Research News to read the full story.

Friday Think is an occasional series on PATH blog.

During the week we scour the news for the hottest stories on innovation. Our feature, Friday Think, highlights one we’ve found particularly fascinating.

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