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UVM Researchers Create Faster Test for Lung Infections

It's not uncommon for people with lung infections and disease to end up in the hospital. Bacteria that interrupts breathing can be dangerous, even fatal. And a diagnosis can take time.

"So usually what we do is we collect sputum from the patients. We ask them to cough up whatever they can cough up and it gets sent to the microbiology lab at the hospital and then time, energy and effort is spent culturing the bacteria and then it takes us a couple of days at least and in the case of tuberculosis, even a couple of weeks before we have information as to whether particular bacteria is going to grow," said Dr. Laurie Leclair, a lung specialist at UVM-FAHC.

But that may change thanks to research at the University of Vermont's College of Medicine and its School of Engineering, where Dr. Jane Hill has developed a breath test that can diagnose lung infections in less than a minute. Just like police can nab a criminal with a fingerprint, doctors may be able to nab bacteria with a breath print.

"It's a collaborative effort between Dr. Hill and myself and it really started out outside of the University of Vermont with people being very interested in a very rapid way to understand what kind of bugs are living in someone's lungs," Leclair said.

In the lab, they're looking at different compounds in the breath, and they've found significant differences between infected and uninfected mice. The next step will be clinical trials at UVM and other academic medical centers, and if effective, doctors call the breath test a breakthrough in detecting disease-causing bacteria.

"I think it has big implications in the intensive care unit where people can get infections while on breathing machines and certainly in the area of tuberculosis and other lung infections as well," Leclair said.

A final answer won't come for another 7-10 years after clinical trials wrap up, but researchers at UVM are optimistic their breath test will mean a faster, easier non-invasive method for diagnosing disease.

The researchers have published their work in the Journal of Breath Research. Here is the full reference and abstract:

Detecting bacterial lung infections: in vivo evaluation of in vitro volatile fingerprints. Jiangjiang Zhu, Heather D Bean, Matthew J Wargo, Laurie W Leclair and Jane E Hill. J. Breath Res. 7 (2013).

The identification of bacteria by their volatilomes is of interest to many scientists and clinicians as it holds the promise of diagnosing infections in situ, particularly lung infections via breath analysis. While there are many studies reporting various bacterial volatile biomarkers or fingerprints using in vitro experiments, it has proven difficult to translate these data to in vivo breath analyses. Therefore, we aimed to create secondary electrospray ionization-mass spectrometry (SESI-MS) pathogen fingerprints directly from the breath of mice with lung infections. In this study we demonstrated that SESI-MS is capable of differentiating infected versus uninfected mice, P. aeruginosa-infected versus S. aureus-infected mice, as well as distinguish between infections caused by P. aeruginosa strains PAO1 versus FRD1, with statistical significance (p < 0.05). In addition, we compared in vitro and in vivo volatiles and observed that only 25–34% of peaks are shared between the in vitro and in vivo SESI-MS fingerprints. To the best of our knowledge, these are the first breath volatiles measured for P. aeruginosa PAO1, FRD1, and S. aureus RN450, and the first comparison of in vivo and in vitro volatile profiles from the same strains using the murine infection model.

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