An international team of scientists from Imperial College London have identified 2 genes, IFI44L and FAM89A, that are only activated when a bacterial infection is present in the body. During the study, which involved 240 children across several countries, they found that relying on the presence of these genes to diagnose a bacterial infection had a 95-100% accuracy rate. They now hope to use the findings to develop a test that can be used to rapidly identify whether a child has a bacterial infection.

If a test could be developed, this may help identify life-threatening bacterial illnesses, including meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia, more swiftly after a child becomes unwell. Researchers also hope that this could assist in combating the growing resistance to antibiotics.

At present, bacterial infections can only be diagnosed by way of testing blood or spinal fluid, which can take up to 2 days. The symptoms of viral and bacterial conditions can be similar, but the latter can be much more serious so antibiotics are often given as a precaution if there is any uncertainty. Equally, treatment for bacterial infections is sometimes started too late because the doctor assumes that the child has a virus. If it was possible to do an ‘on the spot’ test for a bacterial infection, then it would be clear whether a child had a viral or a bacterial infection and the appropriate treatment could be given.

Vinny Smith, the Chief Executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation, which supported the study, has said: “This latest development is very exciting. Bacterial meningitis and septicaemia can kill in hours, and can leave survivors with life-changing after effects. Giving health professionals the tools to rapidly determine whether an infection is bacterial or viral will enable faster detection and treatment of meningitis and septicaemia.”

The scientists are now going to carry out the same study on a larger number of children to confirm their findings. Provided that these results are equally promising, they will then begin work on developing a test that can be used in GP surgeries, out-of-hours centres, A & E and other paediatric care centres.