MIT Researchers Develop Tool That Improves Sepsis Treatment

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a novel device that could potentially accelerate the process of diagnosing sepsis. Sepsis is a medical complication that could be deadly if diagnosed too late.

Typically, the body performs its task of fighting infections by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream. Sepsis occurs when the body’s response to these chemicals is out of balance.

This imbalance can trigger an inflammation chain reaction throughout the body, causing a high heart rate, high fever, shortness of breath, and other issues.

If left unchecked, it can lead to septic shock, where blood pressure falls, and organs quickly shut down—lungs, heart, and liver. In some cases, the body will not be able to handle the harm that is being done and can eventually cause death.

Severe sepsis strikes more than a million Americans every year, and 15 to 30 percent of those people die. In effect, sepsis is the leading cause of death in U.S. hospitals that kills nearly 250,000 patients annually. To makes things worse, the number of sepsis cases per year has been on the rise in the United States.

Fortunately, sepsis is not an inevitable and uncurable event. Notably, there are current methods that doctors can implement to detect and diagnose the potentially fatal occurrence using various diagnostic tools. This method includes vital signs, blood tests, and other imaging and lab tests.

The problem, however, with traditional methods involve two particular reasons: diagnostic tools and time.

First of which, diagnostic tools often come in bulky apparatus and are often too difficult to manipulate in certain situations. For example, some doctors can have patients do a chest X-ray to body imaging using CT scans. That is on top of the overwhelming blood work and other tests that could quickly become too costly for the average patient.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality lists sepsis as the most expensive condition treated in U.S. hospitals, costing nearly $24 billion in 2013, the latest data available.

The other problem is time. Although doctors can have tests performed to detect sepsis early on, they don’t usually receive the test results until hours later. Sepsis is a time-sensitive situation, where the earlier it is detected, the less chance for it to develop into severity.

In recent years, portable “point-of-care” systems developed the use of microliters of blood that could yield results in about 30 minutes. However, this portable device is often too expensive and too sensitive — where little changes can affect the reliability of its conclusion.

As an effort to curb the high mortality caused by sepsis, MIT researchers developed a tool that capitalizes on technology harnessed by microfluidics. Microfluidics is the science of manipulating and controlling fluids, usually in the range of microliters.

In simple terms, the researchers have a tool that can manipulate, conduct tests, and gather results from bodily fluids to efficiently diagnose a patient of sepsis. Furthermore, the device is portable and will only require a prick on the finger.

In a release posted on MIT’s website, they described the tool as a “system that automatically detects clinically significant levels of IL-6 for sepsis diagnosis.” Furthermore, based on that system, it can help doctors form a diagnosis “in about 25 minutes, using less than a finger prick of blood.”

MIT’s proposed diagnostic tool utilizes a microfluidic channel with microbeads laced with antibodies mixed with a blood sample to capture the IL-6 biomarker. Meanwhile, another channel only has beads containing the biomarker attached to an electrode.

When you run voltage through the electrode, it produces a signal every time one of the IL-6 beads passes through, which is then converted into the biomarker concentration level.

The IL-6 biomarker is integral with diagnosing sepsis early on because they appear hours before the body goes into sepsis. Determining the level of concentration can effectively tell doctors if treatment is necessary.

The study and tool will be presented this week at the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference.

First author Dan Wu, Ph.D. student, Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT said:

“For an acute disease such as sepsis, which progresses very rapidly and can be life-threatening, it’s helpful to have a system that rapidly measures these nonabundant biomarkers. You can also frequently monitor the disease as it progresses.”

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