A simple and inexpensive blood test that can rapidly work out if a patient needs antibiotics is being developed by scientists.
It could take under an hour and less than a drop of blood to determine whether someone with a cough needs powerful pills for pneumonia or if they simply have a cold.
Patients with sepsis, a form of blood poisoning that is one of Britain’s biggest killers, could also benefit.
The test, which it is hoped will be simple enough for use in GPs’ surgeries, as well as in A&E departments and intensive care units, could be available in as little as three years.
The hope, from Stanford University in California, comes amid mounting concern that over-prescription of antibiotics is driving a superbug epidemic.
Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, has described an ‘apocalyptic scenario’ in which, in just 20 years’ time, routine operations such as hip replacements become deadly because relatively minor infections can’t be quashed.
It is also forecast that drug-resistant infections will kill more people than cancer by 2050, unless urgent action is taken.
Tests do exist that tell doctors if antibiotics are needed but they take days and doctors are often under pressure from patients to write them a prescription.
The breakthrough, detailed the in the journal Science Translational Medicine, offers hope of a faster alternative.
Researchers Tim Sweeney and Purvesh Khatri and have shown that infections leave telltale signs in the blood.
They have identified 11 genes, out of the 24,000 in the body, that create a distinct pattern when someone has an infection.
And another seven that reveal whether that infection is caused by bacteria or a virus.
This second step is crucial because antibiotics only work against bacteria – but are frequently prescribed for colds, flus and other viral infections.
Dr Sweeney said: ‘A lot of times you can’t really tell what kind of infection someone has.
‘If someone comes into the clinic, a bacterial or viral infection often look exactly the same.
‘[Our test] first asks, “Is an infection present?”
‘Then, we ask, “If so, what kind?”’
In experiments on blood samples taken from more than 1,000 patients, including children with sepsis, the test proved to be highly accurate.
At the moment, the test takes up to six hours to provide a result.
But Dr Khatri hopes it will be able to refine it so that reveals within an hour if antibiotics are needed.
The test must also be cheaper than antibiotics, if doctors are to be encouraged to use it rather than prescribe the pills by default.
Dr Khatri said: ‘It is our goal to make this test available in family doctors’ offices, as well as emergency departments and ICUs in hospitals.’
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