Massachusetts General Hospital researchers repurposed a portable, fast-acting diagnostic device they developed to spot cancer as a successful test for tuberculosis and other infectious diseases such as pneumonia. Additionally, they used it to pinpoint antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as the deadly MRSA.
Two new papers detail their findings, published in Nature Communications and Nature Nanotechnology.
In each case, the researchers relied on microfluidic technology combined with nuclear magnetic resonance (NM), initially developed by the MGH Center for Systems Biology for use with tiny tissue samples or blood to detect cancer biomarkers. First, magnetic nanoparticles were used to label target cells or molecules, which were then passed through a micro NMR system for screening.
To adapt their system more broadly, researchers focused on targeting specific nucleic acid sequences for TB. And with some minor technical adaptations, the test produced positive results from TB patient samples, as well as samples from patients with TB and HIV. Similarly, they adapted their technology to use the bacterial biomarker ribosomal RNA as a target for nanoparticle labeling, generating encouraging results testing for a number of pathogens (13 of them), including a form of pneumonia and drug-resistant MRSA bacteria.
The particularly useful thing to remember here is that the process took just a few hours, versus up to two weeks for diagnostic approaches that reflect the current standard of care.
More research is needed, of course. But the researchers, led by Ralph Weissleder, director of the MGH Center for Systems Biology, say the findings have merit by giving doctors a way to achieve quicker, more accurate and inexpensive TB diagnosis, plus a speedy way to detect bacteria that would resist most antibiotic treatments--providing a portable tool of value in both emerging markets and developed countries. Speedier treatment of infectious diseases prevents their spread, after all. And zeroing in on antibiotic-resistant bacteria more quickly can help boost patients' care in the long run by giving them the right drug earlier.
"Rapidly identifying the pathogen responsible for an infection and testing for the presence of resistance are critical not only for diagnosis but also for deciding which antibiotics to give to a patient," Weissleder said in a statement.