Using Colour to Help Diagnose Sepsis

02/09/2014 11:22 EST | Updated 04/11/2014 05:59 EDT

With the Olympics in full swing, the influence of colour cannot be understated. The dazzling displays of the Opening Ceremonies filled our screens with rich hues making the event a true spectacular. At the events, the uniquely inspired uniforms offer an assortment of shades designed to keep attention. The overall effect is not only eye-pleasing but also conversation-grabbing.

Apart from beauty and awareness, colour can be used as a powerful identification tool. At the Games, we can easily identify a particular athlete or team at a blink of an eye. In traffic, we can easily distinguish stop from go simply by looking for red or green. Even our personal feelings can be described in colourful ways. If we're feeling melancholy, we're blue; if we're jealous, we're green with envy; and who hasn't felt anger without seeing red?

But there has been one environment where colour has traditionally been less than useful: medical diagnostics. In this world, which is almost always based on numbers and the positive/negative results, there has been little room for the inclusion of pigments. Yet, in the last few months, one company has come out with a way to use colour to help fight one of the most egregious conditions known: sepsis.

Sepsis affects some 2 per cent of patients admitted to hospital -- some 19-million cases worldwide every year. Medically speaking, it is the development of a systemic inflammatory response to a particular infection. However, the explanation is far less threatening than the actual outcome. The disease is extremely painful and can leave a person in agony for days as the inflammation takes over the body. It's also difficult to control; 30 years ago, 80 per cent of those suffering died.

Since that time, there has been a drop in the rate of deaths -- 20-30 per cent -- thanks in part to the advent of rapid diagnosis. The sooner an infection can be identified, the chances for survival increase dramatically. Unfortunately, the ability to conduct these tests in a rapid and cost-effective manner left many institutions handcuffed.

But thanks to colour, the rapid diagnosis of sepsis may be upon us. A Californian team of researchers published an article last year that revealed just how colour might be able to save lives.

To find out more about the technology, I reached out to one of the authors, Dr. Paul Rhodes, who is also the Chief Executive Officer of company producing the test, Specific Technologies. His passion was evidence from the moment he spoke.

"This is a rapid test that can help to save lives. Thanks to colour, we can get a positive result that's accurate significantly faster than existing methods. We can then quickly turn over that information to the clinical staff to can start effective and proper treatment effectively."

The test is relatively simple. The key is a small porous sensor array that appears like paper covered with 100 coloured dots. The sensor is placed over a collection tube containing blood. As the blood sits and incubates, any bacteria that may happen to be present will start to grow and, much like when we eat, give off gas. The gas then rises to the top of the tube and interacts with the colours, muting them. After a given period of time, the sensor is examined. The number of spots affected and extent of muddying provides a value that is then cross checked with a database to determine the actual cause of infection.

According to Rhodes, the change in colour is similar to finding a fingerprint at a crime scene. "We have a repository of colour-based infection 'fingerprints' that are strain specific." This gives public health officials the same power as a detective; with the fingerprint known, further investigations can elucidate how, where and even why a person might have acquired sepsis. As Rhodes puts it, "Once we have a result, we can start to trace backwards to determine geographic spread, whether in a healthcare facility or in the community."

But perhaps the most critical value to the test may be to prevent even further disasters down the road. As with any severe bacterial infection, the only route to follow is through the use of antibiotics. However, with the post-antibiotic era upon us, making the right decision is paramount to reduce any further damage to our already shrinking arsenal. As Rhodes points out, this test may offer some hope. "The sensor is information rich. Not only do we identify the species, but we are also strain specific. This is important to prevent misdiagnosis."

The use of colour will continue to amaze us well into the future. While the Olympics will always be at the forefront of the imagination, thanks to people like Rhodes, colour may also be able to help us practically behind the scenes. Although most of us may never have to deal with the scourge of sepsis, there is hope that those who do will be able to survive and move on to be able to enjoy colour for years to come.