You have a rasping cough. Your speech is reduced to a whisper and your throat is raw and aching. You cannot sleep. So you tell your sad story to your doctor, who faces a simple issue: do you have a viral infection, or is a bacterium responsible for your illness?
It sounds a trivial issue. In fact, the problem goes beyond your immediate health and has implications for the general wellbeing of society. If your doctor makes a misdiagnosis and – thinking your condition is caused by a bacterium – prescribes a course of antibiotics, the decision could have harmful side-effects.
Crucially, you will not recover more quickly from your illness, because antibiotics have no effect on viruses. At the same time, the inappropriate use of that antibiotic will only further the spread of anti-microbial resistance, which has now become a global crisis.
More than 700,000 people a year are killed by drug-resistant infections, the result of decades of global misuse of antibiotics. “The world is facing an antibiotic apocalypse.” says England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies.
Halting this misuse has become an urgent goal for doctors. And one solution, based on research carried out at Leeds University, is aimed directly at the conundrum facing GPs: how to differentiate, speedily, an infection that is caused by a virus from one that is triggered by a bacterium.
(A bacterium is a single-celled organism; viruses are smaller and can only reproduce by invading and hijacking a cell’s own genetic material.)
The Leeds project involves groups of engineers, biologists and clinicians at the university, and has led to the development of a prototype chip the size of a large matchbox. From a pinprick of blood it can identify chemicals that are released by the body when it has been infected by bacteria. In short, it can tell when a person is suffering from a bacterial or a viral infection, and once completed it should help to reduce misdiagnoses, and, in the process, the spread of anti-microbial resistance.