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Ulster University researchers lead global fight against antibiotic resistance

Pictured is lead researcher and Director of Ulster University’s Nanotechnology and Integrated BioEngineering Centre (NIBEC), Professor Jim McLaughlin

Ulster University, in collaboration with leading international medical companies, has developed a pioneering mobile device that can diagnose a range of bacterial infections on the spot, including strep throat and urinary tract infection, helping to address the major global health concern of antibiotic resistance.

According to the World Health Organization, the overuse and inappropriate use of antibiotics, such as people taking antibiotics for viral infections like colds and flu, is a key contributing factor to antibiotic resistance. The innovative device developed by Ulster University experts will help to tackle this major healthcare crisis by providing a patient-centred, low-cost diagnostic device that provides accurate guidance on whether an antibiotic is needed or not.

The University technology is part funded by Invest Northern Ireland and has been developed in partnership with Ulster University spin-out, Intelesens; Northern Ireland Connected Health Innovation Centre (CHIC), Randox Laboratories, CIGA Healthcare and Silicon Valley-based medtech company, Scanadu Inc.

The team of researchers has created a handheld sensor device linked to a smartphone app that examines a patient’s clinical sample and transmits results to the patient’s mobile phone. This helps them identify if they have a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, that requires antibiotic treatment or simply a viral infection that cannot be cured by antibiotics.

Lead researcher and Director of Ulster University’s Nanotechnology and Integrated BioEngineering Centre (NIBEC), Professor Jim McLaughlin said: “At Ulster University we are using our world-leading expertise in sensor technology to address global health concerns.

“We have spent over three years developing this pioneering smartphone guided diagnostic device that has the potential to prevent people using an antibiotic unless it is truly necessary. It can provide accurate data related to five vital signs such as blood pressure, heart rate and temperature and can accurately diagnose 13 health conditions including a range of bacterial infections.

“Many GPs prescribe antibiotics due to patient pressure or because they want to eliminate a potential bacterial infection and want to take action before waiting for test results. However, this provides no relief to patients if the issue is in fact originating from a virus, and enhances the potential for the development of antibiotic resistance, which is significantly increasing healthcare costs across the globe.

“What makes this technology truly groundbreaking is that the system can be used without any training in the home, as well as in doctor surgeries or pharmacies. The smartphone app provides a doctor in your pocket solution, taking the user through a number of steps and tests to diagnose infection and subsequently offering guidance on treatment.  

“The infection-based tests help patients self-manage their symptoms and could aid in the reduction of unnecessary GP appointments and prescription of antibiotics.”

As well as identifying bacterial infection, the innovative technology can diagnose a range of health conditions including Anemia, Atrial Fibrillation, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Diabetes, HIV, Hypertension, Leukocytosis, Otitis Media, Pneumonia and Sleep Apnea.

The pioneering device was developed as part of the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, a three and a half year global competition designed to help solve some of the world's most pressing problems through technology. The team, including Ulster University researchers, has reached the final five out of 350 international entrants.

Professor McLaughlin added: “It is a huge achievement for the team to reach the final five of this global competition. The technology has just recently been sent to the judges in America to be independently tested and the winners are expected to be announced in February 2017.

“Regardless where we place in the competition, the team has created a viable consumer-focused diagnostic device and the next step will be to explore commericalisation of this technology.  We have also entered this research into the UK Longitude Prize, which similar to the XPRIZE challenges scientists to create a test for bacterial infections, helping health professionals to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.”

The research is being carried out at Ulster University by experts from NIBEC including Professor Jim McLaughlin, Dr Patrick Dunlop, Stephen McComb and Dr David Steele, in conjunction with CIGA Healthcare, Randox and Intelesens and the Northern Ireland Antimicrobial Resistance (NI AMR) Network.