Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: Rapid Testing for Antibiotic Resistance

Ahmad (Mo) Khalil

The term “freeze-dried” may bring to mind those handy MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) consumed by legions of soldiers, astronauts, and outdoor adventurers. But if one young innovator has his way, a test that features freeze-dried biosensors may soon be a key ally in our nation’s ongoing campaign against the very serious threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Each year, antibiotic-resistant infections account for more than 23,000 deaths in the United States. To help tackle this challenge, Ahmad (Mo) Khalil, a researcher at Boston University, recently received an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to develop a system that can more quickly determine whether a patient’s bacterial infection will respond best to antibiotic X or antibiotic Y—or, if the infection is actually viral rather than bacterial, no antibiotics are needed at all.

To build the foundation for his new diagnostic approach, Khalil is sequencing the transcriptomes of a variety of bacterial strains to analyze their genomic response to various antibiotics. He then uses that information to produce a panel of RNA sensors specific to each particular bacterial strain, and freeze-dries those sensors onto strips of testing paper, creating what he thinks will be a highly specific diagnostic test with a very long shelf life.

As Khalil envisions it, the clinical use of his test would involve obtaining a sample of infected material from a patient and exposing the sample to a certain antibiotic. After about 20 minutes, the sample’s cells would be lysed and the resulting solution placed on the test strip. That liquid would serve to reconstitute the freeze-dried RNA sensor reactions embedded on the paper, and those sensors would light up if the sample contains a bacterium that is a good candidate for the antibiotic.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.