A matchbox-sized monitor enabling direct measurement of vital functions of bacteria could speed up infection detection and cancer treatment assessment.
The gadget, developed by scientists at the Swiss technology institute EPFL in Lausanne, uses a tiny lever, slightly thicker than human hair, that vibrates with bacteria activity. The oscillation, which is of order of one millionth of a millimetre, is detected by a laser, which translates it into an electrical signal. The line of the bacteria’s vital function is then displayed on an ECG-like monitor. When the line turns flat, the bacteria are dead.
"This method is fast and accurate," said lead researcher Dr Giovanni Dietler. "It can be a precious tool for both doctors looking for the right dosage of antibiotics and for researchers to determine which treatments are the most effective."
With conventional laboratory methods, doctors often have to wait for weeks to get results of bacteriological testing. The bugs first need to be cultivated and then grown into sufficient amounts to enable further studies. In the case of tuberculosis, for example, it may take up to a month to get the results. Thus it is difficult to assess swiftly how the infection is responding to antibiotics. In turn, inefficient medication might be changed too late putting the lives of patients at risk. With the newly developed monitor, doctors could get the results in a couple of minutes.
The research was recently published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The team now works towards further decreasing the size of the device to the size of a microchip by swapping the laser for a piezoelectric sensor.
If several such monitors are combined, doctors could be able to test the effectiveness of several types of antibiotics at once. The team believes the method could also work in monitoring the response of tumour cells to cancer treatment.
Dr Sandor Kasas, co-author of the report said: "If our method also works in this field, we really have a precious tool on our hands that can allow us to develop new treatments and also test both quickly and simply how the patient is reacting to the cancer treatment."