Researchers at Queen's University Belfast and the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust have developed a groundbreaking test for meningitis which could help save lives.
A rapid diagnostic test for meningococcal bacteria that can produce results within an hour has been developed by scientists from Queen's Centre for Infection and Immunity and the Trust. The speed of this new test is a vital factor in the treatment of young children with meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia who become very ill over a short period.
This research has been supported by the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF).
Professor Mike Shields, of Queen's University and the Belfast Trust, explained: "The first symptoms of meningococcal infections are the same as a simple viral infection, making it difficult to diagnose in the early stages. Parents often use the 'tumbler test' on their children's bodies, but the non-blanching rash that is associated with a positive outcome of this test is a late sign and is not always present in children who have meningitis.
"Currently doctors will admit and treat with antibiotics any child that they suspect of having meningococcal disease while they await the traditional test results that take between 24 and 48 hours. Some children are not diagnosed in the early stages while others are admitted and treated 'just in case' when they don't actually have the disease.
"With the development of a small piece of equipment, which resembles a portable home printer, a sample of blood or a secretion such as saliva, can be tested quickly by the machine. This produces a colour reading that determines if the patient has meningitis or not."
Alongside saving lives, early detection can potentially improve outcomes for meningitis patients who are often left with life-altering conditions such as deafness and cerebral palsy.
The machine is now being trialled in the A&E Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Belfast.
Professor Shields explained how the breakthrough is a great example of research benefitting patients.
"There is no other rapid test that can confirm the diagnosis in such a short time. The current tests are expensive and take up to two days to obtain. Speedy identification of the cause of infection can enable doctors to make life-saving decisions about the treatment of patients. If we have the results within an hour we will be able to start the appropriate course of treatment right away."
The new test is very different to standard culture based detection methods that have been used up until now.
Professor Shields: "In recent years molecular diagnostic tests, that use the DNA finger print from 'bugs' for diagnosis, have been developed, but they still require the specimen sample to be transported to the laboratory and takes a considerable time to get the result back to the doctor. This means that doctors have to make clinical decisions before results are available.
"The new test called 'loop mediated isothermal amplification' also utilises a molecular method to detect genes that are common to all strains on the meningococcus. The real advantage of the new LAMP test is that it has the potential to be a simple bedside test that is rapid, cheap, easy to use and doesn't require laboratory trained staff."
Currently there are 1,200 to 1,500 laboratory confirmed cases of meningococcal disease in the UK each year and it is thought that actual numbers could be higher.
The medical team behind this breakthrough was recognised for its work in June of this year when they won an Elevations Diagnostics idea of the year award, organised by HSC innovators, a panel of experts from industry, healthcare and business support organisations.
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