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Study means an early, accurate, life-saving sepsis diagnosis could be coming soon

image.img.320.highA blood test for quickly and accurately detecting sepsis, a deadly immune-system panic attack set off when our body wildly overreacts to the presence of infectious pathogens, may soon be at hand.

Sepsis is the leading cause of hospital deaths in the United States and is tied to the early deaths of at least 750,000 Americans each year. Usually caused by bacterial rather than viral infections, this intense, dangerous and rapidly progressing whole-body inflammatory syndrome is best treated with antibiotics.

The trouble is, sepsis is exceedingly difficult to distinguish from its non-infectious doppelganger: an outwardly similar but pathogen-free systemic syndrome called sterile inflammation, which can arise in response to traumatic injuries, surgery, blood clots or other noninfectious causes.

In a recent news release, I wrote:

[H]ospital clinicians are pressured to treat anybody showing signs of systemic inflammation with antibiotics. That can encourage bacterial drug resistance and, by killing off harmless bacteria in the gut, lead to colonization by pathogenic bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile.

Not ideal. When a patient has a sterile inflammation, antibiotics not only don't help but are counterproductive. However, the occasion for my news release was the identification, by Stanford biomedical informatics wizard Purvesh Khatri, PhD, and his colleagues, of a tiny set of genes that act differently under the onslaught of sepsis from they way they behave when a patient is undergoing sterile inflammation instead.

In a study published in Science Translational Medicine, Khatri's team pulled a needle out of a haystack - activity levels of more than 80 percent of all of a person's genes change markedly, and in a chaotically fluctuating manner over time, in response to both sepsis and sterile inflammation. To cut through the chaos, the investigators applied some clever analytical logic to a "big data" search of gene-activity results on more than 2,900 blood samples from nearly 1,600 patients in 27 different data sets containing medical information on diverse patient groups: men and women, young and old, some suffering from sterile inflammation and other experiencing sepsis,  and (as a control) healthy people.

The needle that emerged from that 20,000-gene-strong haystack of haywire fluctuations in gene activity consisted of an 11-gene "signature" that, Khatri thinks, could serve up a speedy, sensitive, and specific diagnosis of sepsis in the form of a simple blood test.

The 11-gene blood test still has to be validated by independent researchers, licensed to manufacturers, and approved by the FDA. Let's hope for smooth sailing. Every hour saved in figuring out a possible sepsis sufferer's actual condition represents, potentially, thousands of lives saved annually in the United States alone, not to mention billions of dollars in savings to the U.S. health-care system.

Previously: Extracting signal from noise to combat organ rejection and Can battling sepsis in a game improve the odds for material world wins?
Photo by Lightspring/Shutterstock

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