Newborns' genetic code sends infection distress signal

Aug. 15, 2014

Infants suffering from life-threatening bacterial infections such as sepsis could benefit from improved treatment, thanks to a groundbreaking study. For the first time, researchers have been able to detect and decode a signal generated from a neonate's DNA that can tell doctors whether or not a bacterial infection is present in the bloodstream. The findings, published recently inNature Communications, could aid in the development of a test for bacterial infection in newborns, using a single drop of blood. Accurate diagnosis of infection could limit overuse of antibiotics, which can lead to drug resistance.

University of Edinburgh researchers have identified a signal consisting of 52 molecular characters that is specific to bacterial infection. Using blood samples from newborn babies in Edinburgh, Scotland, the study investigated thousands of signals written in biological code known as messenger RNAs. Through meticulous code-breaking, the scientists were able to decipher with close to 100 percent accuracy the signals generated by an infant's genome that specifically tell that the child is suffering from sepsis. Currently, the most reliable way to detect infection is by detecting the bacteria in the blood, but this requires a relatively large volume of blood.

An antibody test cannot be used as it only provides historical information about an infant's illness. Peter Ghazal, PhD, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Biomedicine at the University of Edinburgh's Division of Pathway Medicine, explains, “Just as a Twitter user can send a 140-character message, so a baby's genome produces short messages or signals that produce code information to communicate with the infant's immune and metabolic systems so that the infant can fight the infection. The 52-character 'tweet' or message that we have identified appears to be specific for bacterial but not viral infection.” Read the study.

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