Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation receives National Institutes of Health grant


BROOKLINE, Massachusetts – Fraunhofer CMI received a R21 exploratory research grant from the National Institutes for Health (NIH), National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for investigating a new method of detecting antibiotic susceptibility in bacteria.

Globally, antibiotic resistance is a very serious problem. When a person becomes ill and goes to a physician for treatment, the doctor takes a clinical history, does a physical exam, and, if s(he) suspects a bacterial infection, will take a specimen to send for culture. For most bacteria, it takes 3 to 5 days to determine bacteria identity and its drug susceptibility as the standard methods are based on culture methods and therefore require time to allow the bacteria to grow. In many cases, physicians cannot wait for culture results to administer treatment and so they use their clinical judgment and prescribe treatment in the absence of this information. Some of the time, the wrong antibiotic is prescribed and these events contribute to the rising problem of antibiotic resistance.

What is needed is a faster diagnostic to enable physicians to prescribe appropriate antibiotic therapy in the first place. That's where Fraunhofer CMI is developing cutting-edge new methods. Dr. Alexis Sauer-Budge considered the problem of detecting antibiotic susceptibility in bacteria. The current practice (culture) requires that the bacteria grow to a high concentration. In the case of tuberculosis, which is an infectious disease that usually attacks the lungs, diagnostics can take as long as six weeks. One rapid diagnostic method with a shorter time to results is Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). PCR is a genetic test that looks for specific mutations that confer resistance to antibiotics. However, bacteria can develop resistance in many ways (and thus various mutations can confer resistance). Unfortunately, PCR is limited by how many mutations can be interrogated at once and that the genetic basis of the mutation is known ahead of time. Dr. Sauer-Budge came up with a micro-fluidic based method to interrogate the bacteria in a phenotypical method (the visible characteristics of an organism resulting from the interaction between its genetic makeup and the environment). Her method can detect susceptibility in the lab, in 10 minutes. This is a significant improvement over the current practice which takes 3 to 5 days. Moreover, since the method is a phenotypical method, it is robust to genetic mutations conferring new types of resistance and does not require a priori knowledge of the genotype.

CMI is focusing on one bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, which causes skin and blood infections. Methicillin-Resistant S. Aureus (MRSA) is a significant contributor to nosocomial infections. The NIH grant is funding Fraunhofer CMI to develop the method further by studying different strains of the bacteria and to standardize the protocol so that their susceptibility can be rapidly determined. Dr. Sauer-Budge created a microfluidic chamber in which the bacteria can be observed in a custom instrument based on a fluorescent microscope. Her image analysis can determine whether or not the bacteria will die in the presence of antibiotics in just 10 minutes.

The results of her research will help doctors around the world to provide their patients with the correct antibiotic for the initial antimicrobial drug therapy. No more guessing.

Fraunhofer CMI is partnered with Boston University and is one of six Fraunhofer USA research centers.