New translational research: Blood test can tell if antibiotics are needed

Thursday, January 21, 2016
Dr. Ephraim Tsalik  assesses Charles Watts for a respiratory infection in the ER at the Durham VA Medical Center.

A team of infectious disease and genomics faculty in the Department of Medicine has been fine-tuning a test that can determine whether a respiratory illness is caused by infection from a virus or bacteria so that antibiotics can be more precisely prescribed.

The team—Ephraim Tsalik, MD, PhdGeoffrey Ginsburg, MD, PhD; and Christopher Woods, MD; and others—has developed what they call gene signatures, patterns that reflect which of a patient’s genes are turned on or off, to indicate whether someone is fighting infection from a virus or bacteria. Results can be derived from a small sample of the patient’s blood. 

The signatures were tested in an observational study, Host gene expression classifiers diagnose acute respiratory illness etiology, published in the January 20 issue of Science Translational Medicine. The signatures were found to be 87 percent accurate in classifying more than 300 patients with flu viruses, rhinovirus, several strep bacteria and other common infections, as well as showing when no infection was present.