A new rapid test for sepsis which could cut the time taken to get a result from up to 72 hours, to within three minutes has been developed by scientists.
The test could save thousands of lives from the common and potentially deadly condition which is triggered by an infection, and experts hope it will be available on the NHS within three to five years.
At present, it can take up to 72 hours to diagnose sepsis, which kills an estimated 52,000 people in the UK every year.
Sepsis hit the headlines following the death of 12-month-old William Mead, from Cornwall, who died in December 2014 after health professionals failed to recognise he had the condition.
A sepsis infection can start anywhere in the body and can occur after chest or water infections, abdomen problems - such as burst ulcers - or even from cuts and bites.
It is caused by the way the body responds to germs, such as bacteria. The body’s response to an infection may injure its own tissues and organs.
If untreated, sepsis can lead to shock, multiple organ failure and death.
The new low-cost test, developed by researchers at Strathclyde University, uses a biosensor device to see whether the protein biomarker interleukin-6 (IL-6) is present in the bloodstream
IL-6 is a molecule secreted by the immune system and is often found in high levels in people with sepsis.
During research at Strathclyde, the new test picked up IL-6 within two-and-a-half minutes.
Experts hope the test will be used at the bedside in hospitals and in GP surgeries.
Its needle shape means it can also be implanted and used on patients in intensive care.
Dr Damion Corrigan, from the department of biomedical engineering at Strathclyde, said: “With sepsis, the timing is key.
“For every hour that you delay antibiotic treatment, the likelihood of death increases.
“At the moment, the 72-hour blood test is a very labour intensive process but the type of test we envisage could be at the bedside and involve doctors or nurses being able to monitor levels of sepsis biomarkers for themselves.
“If GP surgeries had access they could also do quick tests which could potentially save lives.
“It could also be available in A&E departments so that anyone coming in with a question mark could be quickly ruled in or out.
“I would hope the test could improve survival rates by ensuring people get treatment more quickly.
“It’s not just saving lives, a lot of people who survive sepsis suffer life-changing effects, including limb loss, kidney failure and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The test could stop a lot of suffering.”
Dr Ron Daniels, chief executive of the UK Sepsis Trust, said earlier diagnosis and treatment across the UK could save at least 14,000 lives a year.
Symptoms of sepsis include a high or abnormally low temperature, fast heart rate and rapid breathing.
He said: “Any kind of test that enables us to identify sepsis earlier, before symptoms even present themselves, could help save even more lives and bring us closer to our goal of ending preventable deaths from sepsis.
“Systems like this are so important as, with every hour before the right antibiotics are administered, risk of death increases.
“No test is perfect in the identification of sepsis, so it’s crucial we continue to educate clinicians to think sepsis in order to prompt them to use such tests.”
According to The UK Sepsis Trust, early symptoms of sepsis usually develop quickly and can include:
- high temperature (fever)
- chills and shivering
- a fast heartbeat
- fast breathing
Symptoms of more severe sepsis can include:
- feeling dizzy or faint
- confusion or disorientation
- nausea and vomiting
- not passing water for prolonged periods
- cold, clammy and pale or mottled skin
The UK Sepsis Trust says it can be difficult to distinguish from flu and advises people "don't be afraid to say 'I think this might be sepsis'."
Getting antibiotics and fluid early can halt the progression of the infection.