Nanoparticle sensor can distinguish between viral and bacterial pneumonia: Using this diagnostic, doctors could avoid prescribing antibiotics in cases where they wont be effective

Nanoparticle sensor can distinguish between viral and bacterial pneumonia: Using this diagnostic, doctors could avoid prescribing antibiotics in cases where they wont be effective

Many different types of bacteria and viruses can cause pneumonia, but there is no easy way to determine which microbe is causing a particular patient’s illness. This uncertainty makes it harder for doctors to choose effective treatments because the antibiotics commonly used to treat bacterial pneumonia won’t help patients with viral pneumonia. In addition, limiting the use of antibiotics is an important step toward curbing antibiotic resistance.

MIT researchers have now designed a sensor that can distinguish between viral and bacterial pneumonia infections, which they hope will help doctors to choose the appropriate treatment.

“The challenge is that there are a lot of different pathogens that can lead to different kinds of pneumonia, and even with the most extensive and advanced testing, the specific pathogen causing someone’s disease can’t be identified in about half of patients. And if you treat a viral pneumonia with antibiotics, then you could be contributing to antibiotic resistance, which is a big problem, and the patient won’t get better,” says Sangeeta Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

In a study of mice, the researchers showed that their sensors could accurately distinguish bacterial and viral pneumonia within two hours, using a simple urine test to read the results.

Bhatia is the senior author of the study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Melodi Anahtar ’16, PhD ’22 is the lead author of the paper.

Signatures of infection

One reason why it has been difficult to distinguish between viral and bacterial pneumonia is that there are so many microbes that can cause pneumonia, including the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae, and viruses such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

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