Milwaukee Researcher: New Test Diagnoses Deadly Sepsis 10 Times Faster

Dec 11, 2013

New tests are helping doctors prescribe the right antibiotics to treat sepsis.

A Milwaukee researcher says new testing for an often fatal blood infection can diagnose the issue and find the right treatment days faster than the previous method.

Sepsis can be fatal if left untreated, and current testing often takes four or more days to pinpoint the source of the infection.

But Dr. Nate Ledeboer says new procedures can bring that wait time down by up to 50 hours - days sooner than the method that's been used for half a century. Ledeboer is medical director for microbiology and molecular diagnostics at Froedtert Hospital and Dynacare Laboratories.

Sepsis, also known as septicemia,  is caused by bacterial infection in the blood - conditions as simple as urinary tract infections or respiratory tract infections, the two leading causes. It is especially lethal in patients with additional, underlying medical conditions.

Around a half-million people are hospitalized every year and treated for sepsis. But Ledeboer says the prevalence of sepsis is nothing new and it can be caused by infections as simple as urinary tract infections or respiratory tract infections, the two leading causes.

"Sepsis is an age-old problem and we continue to encounter its deadly effects. Mortality for sepsis in many cases exceeds 50 percent," Ledeboer says.

But this current "explosion" of new tools is helping doctors accurately diagnose sepsis in patients more quickly. Ledeboer says often in cases of sepsis, doctors may first prescribe antibiotics that aren't necessarily effective against the infection that's causing the problem, while waiting for more specific test results.

"If we look at patient outcome data, up to 45 percent of patients that have sepsis may be treated inappropriately with that first choice of antibiotics," he says. "It really highlights the important of treating a patient early."

The new testing Ledeboer is studying can help doctors determine which bacteria is causing the infection, which in turn helps them choose the right antibiotic earlier in the treatment process.

"What we find is when we use this test we're providing the clinician with the identification of the susceptibility of the organism, about 45 hours faster," he says. Reducing that wait time can be a "game-changer," sometimes even meaning the difference between life and death for patients.

Ledeboer says there is also a growing appreciation among doctors of the antibiotics we currently have today. By more correctly assigning antibiotics, doctors can also help prevent their overuse and the rise in resistance rates.

"In Milwaukee especially we're very very lucky because our resistance rates are actually very low compared to the united states, and even if we go as far south as Chicago, their resistance rates are considerably higher," he says, while noting that researchers aren't sure why that is exactly.