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U of M-Developed Tool for Rapid Infection Diagnosis Nears Commercialization

A ‘dipstick’ test for urinary tract infections could one day be available in drugstores.

U of M-Developed Tool for Rapid Infection Diagnosis Nears Commercialization
Credit: University of Minnesota
A University of Minnesota chemistry professor who has developed a method for rapidly detecting the presence of urinary tract infections said she’s launching a commercialization push for a new consumer product.
 
Associate Professor Valerie Pierre of the U’s College of Science and Engineering is a molecular chemist whose main work is developing new kinds of florescent metal-based “contrast agents” for imaging technologies such as PET (positron emission tomography) scanners. These new compounds, when administered to patients before the procedure, could potentially enable scanners to quickly and accurately diagnose many kinds of bacterial infections in vivo, without the need for performing time-consuming cultures.
 
If that work is successful, it could be a major game-changer since it now takes 48 to 72 hours for medical labs to clinically diagnose any kind of infection from bacterial cultures — including fast-moving and potentially lethal infections. The delay means doctors must now make decisions based solely on symptoms rather than actual diagnoses, inevitably leading to many unnecessary and costly prescriptions for strong antibiotics.
 
While Pierre and her lab colleagues at the U of M have been working on improving the diagnostic capabilities of PET scanners in recent years, their efforts have also led them onto a related entrepreneurial path for a more modest but still much-needed application – a cheap, easy-to-use diagnostic tool to rapidly diagnose urinary tract infections.
 
Their new product is a “dipstick”-like, urine-sampling device that could one day be available to consumers in drugstores, much like home pregnancy tests. As with the scanner technology, it uses a fluorescent, metal-based complex which “lights up” when binding to bacterial targets, but in this case is refined to detect the presence of E. coli – the cause of the vast majority of urinary tract infections – as well other kinds of bacteria, all within a matter of minutes.
 
The inventors said the test would also be able to determine if the bacteria found are resistant to antibiotics, and so suggest the proper kind of treatment.
 
Pierre told TCB there’s a major unmet need for rapid analysis of all kinds of bacterial infections, but especially so for those of the urinary tract.
 
“Urinary tract infections are the most common infections in the world, and they especially affect women, so you’re talking about millions of cases each year just in the United States,” she said. “It also happens to be a type of infection which is not very well-diagnosed.
 
“Most of the time, you call a nurse or a doctor on the phone and they will prescribe antibiotics based on the symptoms, not on actual clinical diagnostics. The reason for that is there’s really nothing out there that works that is accurate and is quick. Our goal was to do something that was just as accurate as a bacterial culture but instead of taking 48 hours, it would take five minutes.”
 
Her path to commercializing the device was helped along by the U of M’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, a unit of its Academic Health Center supported through the federal National Institutes of Health and its Clinical and Translational Science Award program, which seeks to move treatments out of the lab and into the market more quickly. The institute funded Pierre’s early work on the device, advised her on how to assess the medical marketplace and supported her development of a working prototype.
 
Now she says the effort has reached the point where a commercialization push is imminent.
 
“It’s something we’re very interested in doing either in partnership with a major medical company or through establishing our own startup company,” she said. “This is something the University would very much like to push forward.”
 
The path they ultimately take could depend on if a CEO can be found who would be interested in leading a startup firm with a possible ground-breaking product in the diagnostics field.
 
“I know my limitations,” Pierre laughingly added. “I know I don’t want to be a CEO myself. I’ll stick to the science.”
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