Right now there's no rapid way to diagnose sepsis, a fast-moving blood infection that is a leading cause of death in hospital intensive care units. The illness unleashes a powerful inflammatory response that can quickly overwhelm the body, causing organ failure and death, often within days.
With a narrow window of opportunity for halting its lethal spread, doctors who suspect sepsis typically rush to prescribe powerful antibiotics, even before laboratory tests can confirm the diagnosis. But this practice invariably leads to the inappropriate treatment of many patients who have life-threatening, uncontrollable inflammation without an underlying infection, a condition also common among ICU patients.
New research now suggests that doctors one day could quickly distinguish sepsis from widespread non-infectious inflammation based on genetic profiles of patients' blood. Testing this method in mice, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found the profiles could accurately discriminate between the two conditions 94 percent of the time. The molecular profiles measure differences in patterns of gene expression that are unique to sepsis vs. non-infectious inflammation.
"Our findings hold out hope that scientists could develop a simple bedside blood test that would greatly speed the diagnosis of sepsis," says J. Perren Cobb, MD, director of Washington University's Center for Critical Illness and Health Engineering and a surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "We could in a few hours determine if a patient had a blood infection and treat them right away."
Such a test could not only be used in intensive care units but also in emergency rooms and other settings where a timely diagnosis of infection is important, adds Cobb, who is also professor of surgery and associate professor of genetics. His team's research was published in the November issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.