Professor and Chair of the UTSA Department of Chemistry Waldemar Gorski
Waldemar Gorski is professor and chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio's Department of Chemistry. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Researchers from the University of Texas at San Antonio have developed a method to quickly and accurately detect whether a person has been infected with harmful bacteria and determine the infection’s severity, which may prevent life-threatening illnesses.

Typically, conditions such as kidney or E. coli infections are diagnosed by examining body fluid samples under a microscope to determine the number of white blood cells, known as leukocytes, which are an indicator of infection, or using test strips that turn a certain color when bodily fluids come into contact with it.

While these methods are useful, said researcher Waldemar Gorski, professor and chair of the UTSA Department of Chemistry, they can be time-consuming and often imprecise.

“The only method which gives quick results is the optical method using strips, and they are not reliable in many cases,” Gorski said. Having a fast and accurate read on the presence and severity of an infection will help health care workers determine how quickly they need to act, he said.

Gorski and Stanton McHardy, associate professor of research in chemistry and director of the UTSA Center for Innovative Drug Discovery, have developed what they believe is a more accurate test strip containing molecules that bind to white blood cells and produce an electrical current to signal the presence of an infection.

After contact with bodily fluid such as urine or saliva, the strips are connected to a computer monitor that indicates the severity of an infection.

The two researchers have filed a patent for the molecules created to detect infection. The next step for the pair is finding engineers who can translate the science into a more user-friendly form, such as a handheld device that Gorski hopes may be used by patients in their home and by surgeons in an operating room. In addition, a graduate student is researching whether the chemical processes involved can take place on a test strip, he said.

“Where we are with the science at this point is [being able to say] we can do it – we can measure the current to determine the [presence and severity] of an infection in a sample” with more accuracy, Gorksi said.

Dip stick tests currently in use are imprecise because they rely on a person’s ability to judge the level of infection based on a color scale, said Dr. Jason Bowling, an associate professor of infectious disease at UT Health San Antonio.

Partially colorblind, Bowling relies on his colleague’s interpretations  to read a dip stick, and said that while it is never the sole method used  to determine the presence of an infection, more accurate results could help doctors  determine more effective treatment.

“If you can improve the screening, which this might do,  you can better determine who needs antibiotics and who does not” for urinary tract infections, for example, Bowling said. “More accurate antibiotic prescribing can prevent antibiotic resistance and help sort out who may need [further tests].”

The researchers’ infection detection method also could help doctors determine the severity of an infection in cases where a patient’s symptoms don’t accurately reflect how the infection is progressing, Gorski said.

Bowling said the screening method could be helpful in high-volume clinics to help determine what level of care a patient needs more efficiently, and that more reliable screening may result in more confident decision-making by medical professionals.

“The earlier the diagnosis, the sooner we can cure infections and avoid complications,” Gorski said.

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.