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UI Researchers Find Staph Infections Faster

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IOWA CITY, Iowa - Staph infections afflict a half-million U.S. patients every year, often showing up after surgery, and they're a common problem in hospitals and clinics. Of those people infected, about 20,000 die.

"The bacteria will initially remain localized, but they can spread to the bloodstream, and if that happens, it's a very dangerous situation," James McNamara said.

McNamara, assistant professor of internal medicine, said diagnosing them has always been a slow process.

"The current methods require biopsy and culture, that takes at least 24 hours and often several days, to definitively determine that there is a staph infection," he said.

But McNamara and a team of researchers have developed a "molecular probe," injected directly into the patient's bloodstream.

"It's specifically activated by an enzyme that's expressed by staph," McNamara explained. Within an hour, it shows the exact location of the infection, under near-infared light.

"It becomes fluorescent once it gets activated by the enzyme," McNamara said. "We see it with light, so we shine one wavelength of light on the subject, and then we measure a different wavelength that comes off."

For now, that imaging equipment is in an experimental stage.

"In several years, I would expect there will be some near-infared fluorescence imaging in the clinic," he said.

McNamara is still testing the toxicity of the molecular probe, but he said it appears it should be safe to use on humans. It may be a while before this becomes common practice, but clinicians are watching closely.

"There's a lot of excitement when they see what we're doing," said McNamara.

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