Every day, sick patients go to their doctors. For a while, physicians can be flying blind. Is it a virus or a bacterium? If it's a virus, what kind?
Nailing down these basics means taking time away from treating patients and potentially stopping the spread of an illness - issues that have taken on added urgency in recent years as the threat of bioterrorism has grown.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government said it would increase funding for bioterrorism prevention. As doctors and biologists met at Vanderbilt University, pediatrician James Crowe said they saw they could work together on the issue.
Crowe teamed with David Wright of the chemistry department to focus on tiny microorganisms. Over time, the two have expanded their research to more conventional targets like influenza. Their work focuses on using quantum dots - essentially minute semiconductors - to speed up detection of respiratory viruses to mere hours.
"The results we get are more than if I worked on a part and Jim worked on a part and six months later, we sat down and saw what each had done," says Wright.
Using some of Crowe's and Wright's research, physicians could take samples from a patient, create a culture and see what color it emits. Doctors could determine within six hours and with high certainty if the patient is infected and by which type of virus. They would know the answer with complete certainty after 24 hours - versus the three to four days it takes using a traditional cell culture assay.
Wright and Crowe see potential for the technology at the point of care, although that is several years away. For now, they are focusing on early detection of the Respiratory Syncytial Virus, the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under 1.
The pair is also part of the Regional Center of Excellence for Emerging Infections and Biodefense, which aims to develop biosensors for the ebola virus and anthrax. There, Crowe sees the potential for dealing effectively with a bird flu pandemic, when thousands of people would show up at emergency rooms. Currently, there's no rapid test to determine who has the flu, but biosensors would let doctors decipher quickly who's infected and needs treatment and isolation.
"Vanderbilt had the vision to put some capital in developing nanosciences," Crowe says. "At the time they did it, they weren't sure about all of the applications that might arise. They just knew it needed to be done. Now those infrastructure efforts are yielding fruit."