Staph ‘detectives’ pioneer new test

March 28, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: CYNDY COLE, Sun Staff Reporter] – The microbes responsible for staph infections and other illnesses sickening an estimated 10 million annually in the U.S. have new enemies at Northern Arizona University. Researchers here and at the University of Maryland have designed an inexpensive, 10-minute blood test that would be the first to detect staph and a few other infections. The groundbreaking discovery could lead to nonsurgical treatments for heart and joint infections, drug-resistant staph infections, bone infections and more. In short, it’s an entirely new way to diagnose and fight chronic infectious diseases.

Northern Arizona University associate professors Jeff Leid and Tim Vail have helped design a test that checks for antibodies microbial networks, including the drug-resistant pathogen that makes staph infection a bigger domestic killer than AIDS, at an estimated 18,650 deaths annually.

That morning gunk on your teeth or the film on your shower curtain is a distant cousin of what they’re seeking. That gunk is called biofilm, or colonies of microbial life bound together. “It develops kind of an armor,” Vail said.

Biofilms are strong enough to survive anti-microbial agents, bleach, or strong antibiotics, which is a particular problem with staph and other infectious diseases that kill about 70,000 people annually in the United States. Vail and Leid’s device seeks out biofilm via the blood and delivers results in about 10 minutes.

It could be used by implant makers to ensure products are sterile before implantation, to monitor the health of patients who have received artificial organ or joint implants, and to diagnose staph or yeast infections. Next, they are working on building nanoparticles — possibly containing iron oxide, silica and specific antibodies — that seek out specific biofilms, bind to them, and can be heated via an MRI to destroy the infection.

If this were to work, a patient receiving a heart device or knee replacement wouldn’t need surgery to identify or eradicate some common infections. Tests of treatments in rabbits have been promising, said Leid, associate director of NAU’s Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics, and he’s been told the development could become a billion dollar enterprise. The test is simple to use and could be a part of rural clinics or third-world medicine. “It’s not a complicated apparatus. It’s not something that you’d have to pay half-a-million to have in a clinical lab,” said Vail, an associate professor of biochemistry.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at