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Fast, Cheap Way to Detect Staph Infections

Chances are you won't know you've got a staph infection until the test results come in, days after the symptoms first appear. But what if your physician could identify the infection much more quickly and without having to take a biopsy and ship it off for analysis?

Researchers at the University of Iowa may have found a way to do exactly that. The paper was published February 2nd 2014 in the journal Nature Medicine. A release from the university reports that the team has created a noninvasive chemical probe that detects a common species of staph bacteria in the body. The probe ingeniously takes advantage of staph's propensity to slash and tear at DNA, activating a beacon of sorts that lets doctors know where the bacteria are wreaking havoc.

The release quotes corresponding author James McNamara, assistant professor in internal medicine at the UI, as saying. "We've come up with a new way to detect staph bacteria that takes less time than current diagnostic approaches. It builds on technology that's been around a long time, but with an important twist that allows our probe to be more specific and to last longer."

The UI-developed probe targets Staphylococcus aureus, a species of staph bacteria common in hospitals and found in the general public as well. The bacteria causes skin infections, can spread to the joints and bones and can be fatal, particularly to those with weakened immune systems.

"Every year in the U.S., half a million people become infected by S. aureus bacteria, and 20,000 of those who become infected die," adds Frank Hernandez, a post-doctoral researcher at the UI and first author on the paper. "We believe that we are significantly improving the actual methods for detecting bacteria with a simple approach, which we expect to be cheap, fast and reliable."

What makes staph especially troublesome is doctors don't know the bacteria are in the body until they get the biopsy results, which usually takes days. "They're flying blind, so to speak," McNamara says. "It's the state of medicine at this time."

The UI team created a synthetic probe with two unique features. On one end is a molecule that gives off light under certain conditions. On the other end is another molecule that blocks that light. In other words, the particle, as designed, cancels itself out, leaving itself undetectable inside the body.

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