What if diagnosing serious illnesses such as sepsis or cancer could be as easy as using a pregnancy test?
This might seem like a silly question as they’re such complicated illnesses. However, the home pregnancy test wasn’t used until 1969 and before that you were required to see a doctor or rely on old wives’ tales! In fact, the pregnancy tests we know today didn’t enter circulation until 1978. A similar leap in technological advancement was recently achieved with the monitoring of glucose levels in diabetic patients – you can now monitor your blood sugar levels from your phone!
The research I carry out at Cardiff University in conjunction with Cotton Mouton Diagnostics is attempting to develop a test which could diagnose sepsis quickly and cheaply.
Sepsis is one of the worlds’ biggest killers. However, 44% of people in the UK don’t even know what it is. So what is it? Sepsis is defined as ‘the presence in tissues of harmful bacteria and their toxins, typically through infection of a wound’. However, it’s more commonly known as ‘blood poisoning’. Just Googling sepsis will give you a vast amount of scary statistics: ‘6/10 deaths in Ireland are sepsis-related’ or ‘over 250,000 people a year die from sepsis in the US’. It’s hard to check the validity of these claims but one thing is true – sepsis is one of the largest killers in the world, and each day your sepsis goes undiagnosed your chances of death increase.
My work focuses on the use of nanoscience to solve this problem. ‘Nano’ stems from the Greek term ‘nanos’, meaning dwarf. These days we use it to refer to things that are one billionth of a meter. So 0.000000001m (That’s 9 zeros before the 1!) To put that in perspective, a nanometre is 1/2000th the width of a human hair. We take rice-shaped particles, creatively named ‘nanorice’, and coat them in metals like gold so we can see them when illuminated with a laser.
A sort of glue is then added to the nanorice which sticks only to sepsis-identifying molecules. We spin the coated nanorice around with a magnetic field and expose them to sepsis-contaminated blood. When the blood solution meets the nanorice, the sepsis-identifying molecules bind to them, making them bulkier and thus changing the rate they spin. This allows us to diagnose the presence of sepsis in a blood sample.
This work is obviously still early on in its development, but nanoscience is already being applied in many different ways, from treating cancer to self-healing airplane wings. Maybe soon enough nanoscience will resolve another global problem – one of the largest killers in the world.
Find out more about sepsis on the UK Sepsis Trust website.