A joint research team from Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine has combined the latest in advanced mathematics and biomedicine to create a new diagnostic technology that could help slow the spread of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”
The untreatable pathogens – mutations of E. coli, MRSA, gonorrhea and other harmful bacteria –have been spreading across the globe, a consequence of the way doctors have traditionally prescribed antibiotics.
Because it can takes days to diagnose an infection, physicians often prescribe powerful antibiotics that can combat a broad range of diseases, killing good bacteria along with the bad. That carpet-bombing treatment model has been effective in individual cases, but it’s also spurred the evolution of drug-resistant pathogens. These so-called superbugs kill at least 23,000 people in the U.S. each year and many thousands more across the globe.
Scientists at Rice and Baylor may have come up with a fix: In a paper published Wednesday in Science Advances, the researchers announced the development of a new probe, called a “universal microbial diagnostic,” that would allow doctors to quickly implement more precise treatments by diagnosing specific bacteria much faster.
“Immediately,” said Richard Baraniuk, the lead scientist on the study. “It would be instantaneous.”
The new system combines existing DNA diagnostic technology – genomic probes designed to identify specific pathogens with the wave of a wand – with mathematical techniques that were pioneered for signal processors inside digital cameras and cell phones.
“If a laboratory today wants to test for 200 known pathogenic species, they need 200 different tests, each with its own specific DNA probe,” said Baraniuk, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice. “Our technology is fundamentally different. With a small set of DNA probes, we can test for a large number of species.”
They do that by exposing a bacteria sample to only a few probes, each programmed with randomized DNA codes, then filtering how the pathogen reacts to them through an algorithm designed to identify specific bacteria.
“Well, basically,” Baraniuk said.
It’s OK if you don’t understand exactly how it works. Better to understand the implications: Not only would it allow doctors to quickly diagnose and better treat infections at U.S. hospitals, possibly saving lives, the device would also be a far cheaper alternative to traditional lab work. That makes it attractive for doctors and aid groups working in poorer countries, where diseases often spread faster than physicians can diagnose them. The military could even use the device to detect the presence of biological weapons in combat.
The breakthrough was made possible through a collaboration between computer engineers at Rice and Baylor genomics experts. In lab tests, the researchers showed their universal microbial diagnostic could identify 11 known strains of bacteria using just five randomized DNA probes. Computer simulations suggest that, with more complex mathematical coding, the device could detect far more.
The researchers think they could program a handful of probes to identify each of the more than 200 pathogens on the World Health Organization’s watch list. And if doctors ever discover a new pathogen?
“With this,” Baraniuk said, “all you have to do is update the software.”