Electronic nose sniffs out hospital superbug in faeces (Wired UK)


Chemists and microbiologists from the University of Leicester
have developed an “electronic nose”, which is able to sniff out the killer
superbug Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile
as it’s known for short.

C.difficile, which causes a high fever, intense cramps and
diarrhoea, is prevalent in hospitals and nursing homes and occurs
primarily in people who are taking antibiotics. Like other superbugs, the bacteria can
survive for many weeks and even months on objects and surfaces. It
doesn’t usually affect healthy people who ingest it, but can
multiply and produce toxins in the guts of those who have had their
natural bacterial balance upset by antibiotics. “In 2012 there were
1,646 deaths involving C. difficile infection in England
and Wales, it is more common that MRSA,” Professor Paul Monks, one
of the project’s researchers told Wired.co.uk.

The research team used a mass spectrometer to identify the
unique smell of C. difficile bacteria in faeces, which
they hope in future will help doctors diagnose the disease more
rapidly and prevent it spreading further. The “nose” is so advanced
that it can detect and identify the smell of the individual
volatile organic compounds that are given out by different strains
of the bacteria. “Current tests for C. difficile don’t
generally give strain information — this test could allow doctors
to see what strain was causing the illness and allow doctors to
tailor their treatment,” said Martha Clokie from Leicester’s department of microbiology
and immunology.

“We are thinking of interfacing to bed pan washers (macerators)
to screen from faecal samples,” says Monks, explaining how
hospitals might in future deploy the spectrometer to identify the
disease. Knocking superbugs on the head is obviously a priority for
hospitals, as it leads to high morbidity and increases healthcare

While the technology is limited to being able to identify one
type of bacteria at the moment, the researchers believe that it
could also be adapted to identify other diseases using their
individual “chemical fingerprint”, which presumably lets off a
signature scent. Using bodily scents to diagnose disease is nothing
new, and has even been used to detect cancer thanks to the development of the Nanonose.

It looks likely that this field of science — known as
metabolomics — will increasingly be applied not only to replace
expensive and otherwise invasive diagnostic techniques in oncology,
but also to speedily identify fast-spreading killer diseases in
risky environments.

The only thing likely to stand in the way of this research,
which has been published in the journal Metabolomics, from
being implemented in hospitals, are the near-to-market research and
development costs. The case for investing in it will no doubt be
stronger if the researchers can indeed improve the technology, as
they hope to, so that it is capable of diagnosing multiple diseases

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1 September 2014 | 2:00 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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