Lung probe that spots infections aims to cut antibiotic overuse



A new imaging tool that rapidly diagnoses bacterial lung infections and could help prevent unnecessary use of antibiotics has received £2million from Wellcome Trust and will receive up to £0.9m (US $1.12m) from CARB-X, a major international initiative to tackle antibiotic resistance co-funded by the US Government and Wellcome.

Proteus has enabled the remarkably rapid development of a powerful new approach to the diagnosis of lung disease in critically ill patients.

Dr Mike Tanner

The interdisciplinary collaboration, Proteus, is led by researchers at Heriot-Watt and the Universities of Edinburgh and Bath. It has been supported by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council with additional support from the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council.

The bedside technology can detect within 60 seconds whether harmful bacteria are present, so that patients can be treated with the right medicine quickly. 

Accurate diagnosis means unnecessary use of antibiotics can be avoided if an infection is not present, helping to stop the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to the medicines.

Around 20 million patients in intensive care need machines to help them breathe each year. Up to one third of these patients are suspected as having serious lung infections during their time in intensive care.

Proteus uses chemicals that light up when they attach to specific types of bacterial infection. This fluorescence is detected using fibre-optic tubes that are small enough to be threaded deep inside patients' lungs. 

The technology easily reaches parts of the lungs existing tools cannot, the team says. It could revolutionise the way critically ill patients and others with long-term lung conditions are assessed and treated. It could also aid understanding of bacterial diseases.

Bold new approach

Kevin Outterson, Executive Director of CARB-X and Professor of Law at Boston University, said, “CARB-X is a bold new approach to developing life-saving treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections. By accelerating promising research into novel drugs, diagnostics and vaccine, it is our hope that we can speed up the delivery of new effective antibacterials, vaccines and rapid diagnostics to patients who need them.”

Dr Mike Tanner, a Research Fellow in Heriot-Watt's Institute of Photonics and Quantum Science (IPaQS), said, “Proteus has enabled the remarkably rapid development of a powerful new approach to the diagnosis of lung disease in critically ill patients, a feat that has only been enabled by the truly interdisciplinary nature of the collaboration.

“The awards from the Wellcome Trust and CARB-X will accelerate the development of Proteus technologies, to assist in their rapid translation”

Tim Jinks, Head of Drug Resistant Infection at Wellcome Trust, said, “Drug resistant infection is already a huge global health challenge, and it is getting worse. We need global powers to work together on a number of fronts from the beginning to the end of the drug and diagnostic development pipeline. CARB-X is supporting projects like Proteus to build a robust pipeline of products to fulfil this need.”