Edinburgh University makes breakthrough in 60-second pneumonia detection

Treatment could spot pneumonia in 60 seconds. Picture: JP
Treatment could spot pneumonia in 60 seconds. Picture: JP
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Innovative technology that can detect deadly lung infections in under 60 seconds has been developed by researchers at Edinburgh University.

The new imaging technology uses tiny fibre-optic tubes to illuminate certain types of infectious bacteria in patients’ lungs and could help omit the unnecessary use of antibiotics.

Tests on patients with suspected infections found the approach could detect bacteria deep inside the lung where other screening technologies cannot reach.

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The technology has been developed in partnership with the University of Bath and Heriot-Watt as part of the Proteus Consortium which aims to revolutionise the diagnosis and management of lung diseases.

Currently doctors test fluid samples from patients’ lungs to check if any bacteria is present but these tests can be unreliable with results taking days.

X-rays can be used but are overly sensitive and can lead to patients’ being treated with powerful antibiotics when they are not needed.

The new technology, which has been approved for clinical use, involves spraying chemical probes into patients’ lungs that light up when they attach to infectious bacteria. The fluorescence is then detected using tiny fibre optic tubes that travel deep inside the lungs.

Researchers focused on one of the new probes, designed to detect a subset of bacteria called Gram-negative bacteria.

The team developed the technology in the lab and then tested the probe in patients with a disease called bronchiectasis, which causes repeated cycles of inflammation and infection. They also tested intensive care patients who had suspected infection.

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Fluorescence was seen in lungs of patients with bronchiectasis who had Gram-negative bacteria in the deep parts of their lungs.

Bacteria were also successfully visualised in intensive care patients using the new technology with striking results.

In some of these patients, conventional methods had returned negative results. The researchers say this is not surprising as the individuals were being treated with several types of powerful antibiotics.

Around 20 million patients in intensive care every year need ventilators with up to a third suspected to have serious lung infections, such as pneumonia. This leads to massive antibiotic use, which can increase drug resistance and make bacteria harder to treat.

Kev Dhaliwal, professor of molecular imaging and healthcare technology at the University of Edinburgh and a consultant respiratory physician, said: “Drug-resistant bacteria are fast emerging as the greatest threat to humanity.

“We urgently need to develop new ways to diagnose infections in patients and also to improve our understanding of human disease. Our interdisciplinary Proteus team is developing next-generation technologies to improve patient care.

“The teamwork required to deliver this bench to bedside technology has taken many years and we are incredibly grateful to the patients and families who allowed us to test these exciting approaches and now the follow-on funding to further develop and test this technology in intensive care units around the UK.”