Media Releases

One test for all infections

April 20, 2015

U of T researcher uses new technology to fast-track diagnoses and provide targeted treatment

TORONTO, ON – If you’re return­ing from abroad with a fever, your doc­tor will like­ly test you for malar­ia. You’ll give mul­ti­ple blood sam­ples at the lab, and if the results are incon­clu­sive, you’ll face yet anoth­er round of tests.

Researchers from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to are fast-track­ing this process with new tech­nol­o­gy. With one sam­ple, they can quick­ly and accu­rate­ly diag­nose a patient and rec­om­mend tar­get­ed treat­ment against any bac­te­ria or virus.

News of this tech­nol­o­gy is par­tic­u­lar­ly time­ly because of Nation­al Med­ical Lab­o­ra­to­ry Week (April 19 to 25), an aware­ness cam­paign to edu­cate Cana­di­ans about the impor­tance of diag­nos­tics.

“With this new tech­nol­o­gy we can stream­line order­ing 30 dif­fer­ent tests. We can just order the one test and iden­ti­fy the pathogen–whether it’s dengue fever, West Nile virus, Chikun­gun­ya virus, or a new bac­te­ria or virus,” said Samir Patel, a pro­fes­sor at U of T’s Depart­ment of Lab­o­ra­to­ry Med­i­cine and Patho­bi­ol­o­gy.

Using this tech­nol­o­gy – called Next Gen­er­a­tion Sequenc­ing – Patel takes a patient’s sam­ple and ana­lyzes its genet­ic code. His team then match­es the code to a data­base of thou­sands of bac­te­ria and virus­es, inter­prets the com­plex data and pro­vides a diag­no­sis.

“Our cur­rent tests can be expen­sive, time con­sum­ing and aren’t always accu­rate,” said Patel. “Next Gen­er­a­tion Sequenc­ing will rev­o­lu­tion­ize the micro­bi­ol­o­gy field. With the infor­ma­tion it pro­vides we can fine-tune patient treat­ment.”

This tech­nol­o­gy also removes the need for lengthy guess­work. For exam­ple, if an Ontario patient has a fever and a severe headache dur­ing the sum­mer, doc­tors would nor­mal­ly test for West Nile virus. But those test results are fre­quent­ly neg­a­tive.

Instead of spec­u­lat­ing, doc­tors can now let high-pow­ered com­put­ers dis­cov­er what’s in the sam­ple.

“Dr. Patel’s work in pathogen dis­cov­ery aims to deliv­er a one-stop-shop that can def­i­nite­ly deter­mine the causative organ­isms in severe infec­tions such as menin­gi­tis and encephali­tis,” said Vanes­sa Allen, Chief of Med­ical Micro­bi­ol­o­gy at Pub­lic Health Ontario. “This has the poten­tial to rev­o­lu­tion­ize the way we deliv­er micro­bi­ol­o­gy diag­nos­tics for improved patient care.”

Patel, a clin­i­cal micro­bi­ol­o­gist, began using this tech­nol­o­gy for the Pathogen Dis­cov­ery Pro­gram at Pub­lic Health Ontario in 2012. The goal of the pro­gram is to diag­nose dif­fi­cult cas­es and to quick­ly and accu­rate­ly iden­ti­fy bac­te­ria and virus­es that could cause an out­break.

Dur­ing an out­break, Patel could also track where the bugs come from and how they are evolv­ing. Oth­ers have used Next Gen­er­a­tion Sequenc­ing to iden­ti­fy and track spe­cif­ic strains of Ebo­la in West Africa.

“Should any out­break occur in Ontario, we could test sam­ples, iden­ti­fy the bac­te­ria or virus that is caus­ing the out­break and track the spread using a sys­tem­at­ic process,” said Patel. “We can also see how infec­tious a virus or bac­te­ria is, and if sim­i­lar strains are cir­cu­lat­ing through oth­er parts of the world.”

Patel pre­dicts that the tech­nol­o­gy will be ready for clin­i­cians to use for rou­tine test­ing in about a year.

“The pro­gram will help diag­nose patients who have incon­clu­sive rou­tine test results, and will also enhance the pub­lic health response to an out­break in Ontario. A lot of times we’re in a reac­tive mode, but this is an area where we’re get­ting ahead of the game.”

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For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:
Katie Bab­cock, Web and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Coor­di­na­tor,
The Depart­ment of Lab­o­ra­to­ry Med­i­cine and Patho­bi­ol­o­gy (LMP), Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
E: | P: 416–278-6568 | W: