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University of Liverpool, Fast Track Diagnostics Collaborate in £1.6M Meningitis Test Project

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – University of Liverpool (UL) researchers said today that they have received £1.6 million ($2.2 million) to develop a commercial blood test to improve the diagnosis and management of patients with suspected meningitis, a brain infection that causes disability and sometimes death.

The project, funded by the UK's Medical Research Council and UL's industrial partner Fast Track Diagnostics, which was recently acquired by Siemens Healthineers, could also help cut unnecessary antibiotic treatment, the university researchers said.

Researchers from the university's Institute of Infection and Global Health said that they have developed a laboratory test that measures the body's response to infection in the blood, and can distinguish between bacterial and viral meningitis without the need for an invasive lumbar puncture. The test uses a patient's host transcriptional response, rather than the detection of a pathogen, to diagnose meningitis.

Mike Griffiths, the project leader for the test's development at the Institute's Brain Infections Group, said in a statement that "due to a fear of missing bacterial meningitis, doctors can end up giving unnecessary antibiotics to patients who are really suffering from viral meningitis. This test will help doctors to rule out bacterial meningitis more quickly, reducing unnecessary antibiotic treatment, shorten inpatient stay, and reduce the burden on healthcare."

He added in an email that the test would measure the relative abundance of five RNA transcripts in blood. The transcripts are generated by leukocytes circulating in the blood that produce different patterns of RNA abundance depending on whether meningitis is bacterial or viral.

The markers are measured in less than six hours using a simple RT-PCR assay running on equipment available "in almost all hospital laboratories," Griffiths said.

In treating meningitis, deciding whether the infection is bacterial or viral is an important decision for doctors. Symptoms of both can be similar, but bacterial meningitis requires urgent treatment with antibiotics for the best possible outcome, UL said.

The main test to distinguish between the two is now a lumbar puncture, which is invasive and often delayed or not done because the patient is too ill, leading to difficulties in making a diagnosis, UL said.

In partnership with Siemens' Fast Track Diagnostics, the UL researchers plan to develop a commercial blood test for clinical use and in the next three years, link up with hospital teams in the UK, Europe, and other locations to evaluate it in clinical trials.

In the future, the test also has the potential to be applied to other bacterial infection syndromes, such as pneumonia or sepsis, to enhance their diagnoses, the UL researchers said.