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Cheap, Simple Bacteria Test Could Spare Newborns From Deadly Infections

Small sampling cartridge costs less than $1 (Nov. 1)

For babies, the trip from the womb to the outside world is a transition from a blank, sterile slate to a host for what will eventually be trillions of microscopic organisms.

Unfortunately, the demographics of a burgeoning microbial community can easily tip in favor of dangerous bacteria.

“While that microbial environment in the gut is still developing, the introduction of one of many of the wrong kinds of bacteria may cause a severe immune response,” says Dr. Douglas Weibel, biochemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. “In an infant, the immune system could just ravage the intestines.”

In rural Africa, the risk following infection can be even greater. Weibel will field a cheap and simple test for bacteria that cause necrotizing enterocolitis — a common and often deadly infection — in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda.

“We get many of the beneficial microbes that take up residence in our bodies from our mothers at birth,” Weibel says. “But if there are pathogens that are transmitted from mother to baby as well, they can be identified and treated.”

Often, treating those pathogens can mean administering an antibiotic after the newborn develops relatively vague symptoms. Or, according to Weibel, a mother nearing labor will receive the antibiotics in a preemptive dose — an approach that could result in the same problem it was meant to prevent.

“An approach like that can indiscriminately destroy almost all of the bacteria in a baby's intestines — including the helpful types — leaving harmful bacteria the space and resources to flourish,” Weibel says. “And you're back where you don't want to be, working against a high mortality rate.”

A shift in approach by physicians and pathologists could improve the odds for children, Weibel suggests.

Verifying the presence of harmful bacteria before or after birth can narrow antibiotic use to the newborns that absolutely need it. But verification can require the kind of complex and expensive genome-sequencing equipment found most often near the lab benches of biochemists. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin—Madison have developed a small cartridge that carries almost everything needed to identify harmful microbes. The cartridge system was configured to keep the cost per unit below $1.

“It is extraordinarily simple. It doesn't require someone that has a lot of clinical microbiology expertise,” says Weibel.

Healthcare providers simply add a sample from the mother or baby (or both), read the results within 10 or 15 minutes, and plan the infant’s care with the knowledge that harmful microbes are, or are not, ready to do damage.

Weibel hopes to adapt the technology for use with a smartphone accessory that can heat and process a sample and share the results via a wireless connection.

Source: University of Wisconsin—Madison; November 1, 2012.

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