Campus researchers awarded $5.8 million to discover faster method of identifying drug-resistant bacteria

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UC Berkeley researchers were awarded $5.8 million over five years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to search for a quicker method of identifying types of potentially drug-resistant bacteria.

Campus researchers at the Consortium for Drug-Resistant Gram-Negative Pathogen Detection hope to reduce the time it takes to identify bacteria when patients are tested from three to five days to about three hours. NIAID, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, also awarded grants to eight other projects that are attempting to reduce the time required to diagnose drug-resistant bacterial infections.

“It’s just impossible to do this type of research without federal NIH money,” said Niren Murthy, a campus bioengineering professor and one of the lead researchers. “It’s hard for companies to do research that is this far away and removed from a clinical trial because there’s a lot of risk involved, there’s a lot of failure.”

The campus project, which is two years in the making, is a collaboration between the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the campus department of bioengineering and is led by Murthy, public health professor Lee Riley and bioengineering professor Luke Lee.

Riley said the grant will help expand the project’s existing research, which was difficult to execute without adequate funding.

“We’d already been working on this topic for several years,” Riley said. “But we’ve never had the funding to carry it to reality.”

Sepsis, or blood infection, can cause a patient to die in four to five days and has a conservative mortality rate of 40 percent, according to Murthy.

The project hopes to develop a quicker method for identifying the type of bacteria infecting a patient, allowing doctors to prescribe the right antibiotic almost immediately and improve the patient’s likelihood of survival.

But Riley said the project’s ultimate goal is to prevent a strain of bacteria from becoming resistant to drugs.

Currently, instead of waiting three to five days to detect the bacteria in a patient, doctors prescribe broad-spectrum drugs that are designed to cover all types of bacteria that have potentially infected a patient, Riley said. But these broad-spectrum drugs sometimes increase the chances that bacteria become drug-resistant.

“Just taking a guess on which drug to use, you end up creating a bacteria strain th at is resistant to these broad-spectrum drugs,” Riley said.

He added that doctors, by creating ways to better identify bacteria samples, would be able to treat patients more quickly. Additionally, determining the most effective types of antibiotics and prescribing more focused drugs would hopefully limit the creation of drug-resistant strains.

“We have a lot of good ideas, but now we have to test those ideas,” Riley said.

Contact Anna Sturla at [email protected].