Quantum Microbiology--Things Get Interesting When They Get Small

pcrEverything is getting smaller. Google has announced that it has created a quantum computer, the Holy Grail of techies. While the computer itself is a massive energy suck, the computational power is lodged in subatomic particles. I don’t understand the science, but I know those subatomic particles must be pretty, pretty, pretty small.

In the lab, we are shrinking things down too. Acting on the theory that nothing stays the same, here at UroPartners Laboratory we are embarking on a fantastic journey into the miniature world of DNA analysis.  We will be adopting a technique known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to help us solve the riddle of chronic urinary tract infections.

Why are we doing this? Urinary tract infections (UTIs) cause irritating symptoms and can lead to very significant complications such as sepsis (bloodstream infection,) with lots of Emergency Room visits and hospitalizations. Serious, painful, and costly. We have traditionally made the diagnosis of UTI by bacterial culture; taking a urine sample, spreading it out on a Petri dish covered with agar, sticking the plate in an incubator, and checking the next morning to see if anything has grown. Then comes the process of identifying the growth (disease-causing bacteria? yeast? contamination?) and checking what antibiotics can stop the growth.

It can be a two to three-day process, and it is not perfect. Some bugs don’t want to grow on our little Petri dishes or they may take too long to show up. We do our best, but we know there are many patients who are left without an answer and suffer long-term disease or unsettling complications.

So we are turning to PCR. Our lab will soon be able to examine a urine specimen and in a few hours identify the DNA signatures of the various bugs present. We will also identify the genes that cause the bugs to be resistant to various antibiotics. Better information in a shorter time. A definite win-win.

Like all new technology, PCR for microbiology isn’t cheap. But studies have shown the overall cost to the healthcare system is lowered by eliminating all those ER visits and hospital admissions. And we don’t plan to use the test in all cases, just the problematic ones.

We have to do some construction to create a “clean space” where the DNA in each specimen can be kept isolated from other specimens, so it will be a few months before we get started. But it’s always exciting to start something new. And a hoot for this old dog to learn a few new tricks.

The opinions above are those of the author and not of UroPartners LLC.

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