Sepsis: New rapid test ‘could save thousands of lives’

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University of Strathclyde

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A close-up of the test device

A new rapid test for earlier diagnosis of sepsis has been developed by University of Strathclyde researchers, which they say could save thousands of lives.

A microelectrode device analyses the patient’s blood, with results coming through in two-and-a-half minutes.

Current diagnosis tests for sepsis can take up to 72 hours.

The researchers hope the low-cost test could come into everyday use in three to five years.

It is estimated that 52,000 people in the UK die every year from sepsis, which is a serious complication of an infection.

The body’s immune system starts to attack the body’s own organs and the condition can be fatal.

It is hard to diagnose and can initially look like flu, gastroenteritis or a chest infection.

Early diagnosis is key because every hour that you delay antibiotic treatment, the likelihood of death increases.

Diagnosis of sepsis is usually based on body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, and often a blood test, which can take up to 72 hours.

The new test uses a device to detect if one of the protein biomarkers of sepsis, interleukin-6 (IL-6), is present in the blood.

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Strathclyde University

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Dr Damion Corrigan with the microelectrode biosensor device

Dr Damion Corrigan, who helped develop the test, said IL-6 is one of the best markers of sepsis.

“At the moment, the 72-hour blood test is a very labour-intensive process – but the type of test we envisage could be at the bedside and involve doctors or nurses being able to monitor levels of sepsis biomarkers for themselves.”

He said the test would work well in GP surgeries and in A&E to quickly rule sepsis in or out.

“It’s not just saving lives, a lot of people who survive sepsis suffer life-changing effects, including limb loss, kidney failure and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The small device can be implanted and used on patients in intensive care and can detect when sepsis levels go up.

Sepsis symptoms

Symptoms in adults:

  • Slurred speech or confusion
  • Extreme shivering or muscle pain
  • Passing no urine in a day
  • Severe breathlessness
  • It feels like you’re going to die
  • Skin mottled or discoloured

Symptoms in children:

  • Breathing very fast
  • Fit or convulsion
  • Looks mottled, bluish, or pale
  • Has a rash that does not fade when you press it
  • Is very lethargic or difficult to wake
  • Feels abnormally cold to touch

With early diagnosis and the correct treatment, normally antibiotics, most people make a full recovery.

Source: UK Sepsis Trust

The project’s clinical adviser and co-author, Dr David Alcorn, from Paisley’s Royal Alexandra Hospital, said the tiny electrode could detect sepsis and at the same time diagnose the type of infection and the recommended antibiotic.

“The implications for this are massive, and the ability to give the right antibiotic at the right time to the right patient is extraordinary.

“I can definitely see this having a clear use in hospitals, not only in this country, but all round the world.”

The researchers have applied for grant funding to develop a prototype device and hope to get commercial interest in taking it forward.

They estimate it could be in use within three to five years.

Delayed diagnosis of sepsis

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Strathclyde University

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Ryan, who contracted sepsis in 2015, lost three stone in weight and struggled to walk after coming round from a coma

Ryan Sutherland, from Clackmannanshire, ended up in a coma with sepsis, which had been misdiagnosed.

He had felt unwell with a sore throat that got worse, but was told by a doctor it was a viral infection.

“As the week went on, it got worse and by the Thursday it was really bad. My wife took me to the out-of-hours doctor that night and by this point I was really unwell and could barely move. But I was given an anti-sickness injection and then I was sent home.”

Hours later he collapsed. He was taken to hospital and suffered two cardiac arrests. His body went into shock with the sepsis and his organs started to shut down.

After eight days in a coma, Ryan woke up and made an almost complete recovery.

“No-one mentioned sepsis, although looking back I had all the symptoms,” said Ryan.

“It’s hard to diagnose, so if this test had been around it could have made all the difference to what happened with me.”

The UK Sepsis Trust estimate earlier diagnosis and treatment across the UK would save at least 14,000 lives a year from sepsis.

Dr Ron Daniels, the trust’s chief executive officer, said: “Any kind of test that enables us to identify sepsis earlier, before symptoms even present themselves, could help save even more lives and bring us closer to our goal of ending preventable deaths from sepsis.

“Systems like this are so important as, with every hour before the right antibiotics are administered, risk of death increases.

“No test is perfect in the identification of sepsis, so it’s crucial we continue to educate clinicians to think sepsis in order to prompt them to use such tests.”

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Media captionRachel Day was a healthy, happy 29-year-old, then she was struck down by sepsis

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