Deadly Immune System Disease

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s immune system releases chemicals to fight an infection, causing widespread inflammation. If it’s addressed too late, it can result in organ failure and ultimately death. Scientists at the University of Illinois are working at detecting the harmful immune response quicker than ever, with a new lab-on-a-chip device.

Ordinarily, sepsis is diagnosed by monitoring vital signs such as blood pressure, oxygen levels and body temperature. Should sepsis be indicated, doctors will then set about trying to determine the source of the infection.

The new device isn’t aimed at identifying that source, but is instead intended to provide a diagnosis of sepsis significantly earlier than is currently possible, so that appropriate treatment can be delivered that much sooner. After all, in some cases, the immune system response begins before the infection is even detectable.

Immediate Response

The lab-on-a-chip works by counting total white blood cells in general, along with specific white blood cells known as neutrophils. Additionally, it measures levels of a protein marker known as CD64, which is found on the surface of the neutrophils – the greater the response of the patient’s immune system, the higher those levels are.

In a test of the system, scientists received drops of blood drawn from patients in the intensive care unit and emergency room of the Carle Foundation Hospital. When those samples were analyzed using the new device, the findings were found to strongly correlate with sepsis diagnoses based on observations of the patients’ vital signs.

The hope now is to improve its sensitivity, by upgrading it to “read” other immune response biomarkers besides white cells and CD64.

“We want to move the diagnosis point backward in time,” says lead scientist Prof. Rashid Bashir. “The big challenge in sepsis is that no one knows when you get infected. Usually you go to the hospital when you already feel sick. So the goal is that someday you can be testing this at home, to detect infection even earlier if you can.”

This article was provided by the University of Illinois. Materials may have been edited for clarity and brevity.