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MEDIA CONTACT: Jonathan Sherwood (585) 273-4726
November 1, 2001
'Smart Bandage' Diagnoses Danger Before Infection Takes Hold
Imagine placing an adhesive bandage on a cut and having the bandage tell you
immediately that dangerous bacteria have gotten into the wound and that you need
to seek a doctor's help. Researchers at the University of Rochester have taken
the first major step toward a bandage that will change color depending on what
kind of bacteria may be present in a wound. It can give an instant diagnosis as
to whether the wound may require special care or what kind of antibiotics may
work best in treating it. The bandage is part of the Center for Future Health's
"smart medical home"-a series of devices working in conjunction in the
home to monitor a family's health.
Benjamin Miller, assistant professor of chemistry at the University, and Philippe
Fauchet, professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering, have devised
a sand-grain sized wafer that can differentiate between two classes of bacteria,
called Gram-positive and Gram-negative. The sensor, the first substantial improvement
in identifying Gram-positive and negative bacteria since Hans Christian Joachim
Gram developed the original staining technique in 1884, is reported in the upcoming
issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The accomplishment
is evidence that it's indeed possible to accurately identify bacteria with a silicon
sensor, spurring Miller's team to expand the research to several other types of
bacteria, including salmonella, listeria and enteropathogenic E. coli, all of
which can cause serious disease in humans.
Today, if a doctor needs to identify whether a bacterial infection is of the Gram
positive or negative variety, the bacteria need to be stained and examined under
a microscope. "The Gram stain has been an important tool in analyzing bacteria
for more than a century, but it's amazing to me that we're still using a procedure
that's effectively out of the Stone Age," says Miller. "We can now get
the same information immediately, at home or in the doctor's office, and we're
working on similar ways to detect dozens of other potentially harmful bacteria."
The technique currently used by doctors uses a stain that interacts with the cell
walls of bacteria, changing the color of the bacteria depending on their Gram
type. The drawbacks to this method are that it is prone to human error, since
a person has to make the judgment of whether or not the bacteria have changed
color under the microscope. The "smart bandage," as it's been nicknamed,
zeroes in on a type of molecule called lipid A on the surface of Gram-negative
bacteria. In an earlier publication, Miller showed how he was able to create a
complementary molecule that binds to lipid A, while his newest research shows
that it's possible to link that molecule to a silicon sensor that will change
when the detector molecule binds to the lipid. Currently, the color change is
subtle and could be missed by a human eye, but the bandage is part of a "smart
medical home"-a home designed by several researchers at the University to
monitor health at home-so a simple device could read the bandage, confer with
other instruments throughout the house to determine if the kind of bacteria in
the wound is something of particular danger to you, and make a recommendation.
"This is an important step in changing the way preventive medicine is perceived
and practiced," says Alice Pentland, chair of the department of dermatology
at the University of Rochester. "This kind of research can put a very simple
and accurate tool into the hands of anyone, giving them more control over their
own health than ever before."
The team has lined up a dozen more types of pathogenic bacteria and already mapped
out all the targets for which they will need to devise a binding molecule. Among
those in the team's sights are antibiotic-resistant strains.
"We're working on a way to detect whether or not a certain strain of bacteria
is antibiotic resistant, and which antibiotic that may be," says Miller.
"That will be extremely challenging, but we think we can do it."
Miller plans to create an array of dozens of different bacterial sensors that
can be mounted into a flexible bandage and will change color dramatically enough
so a glance will tell you whether you have a serious infection. Then you could
grab your bandage-reader from the medicine cabinet, scan it over your cut and
know in seconds what kind of infection you have. But Miller is working toward
something much more sophisticated than that.
Miller's work is part of the Center for Future Health, a University of Rochester
team of researchers working to create a "smart medical home" that will
help people keep far better tabs on their personal health with the help of advanced
electronics like Miller's bandage, computers and the Internet. Ultimately, once
you scan your bandage, the reader will connect to a home PC responsible for monitoring
residents' health, reporting what kind of bacteria is present. The house will
check a medical database via the web to determine what kind of treatment is necessary,
confer with other sensors that have been monitoring your gait for signs of stroke,
your skin for signs of melanoma, and your medicine cabinet to make sure you haven't
been taking anything that may conflict with any new medication, and suggest to
you in spoken English what steps you need to take to treat your infection. The
idea of the bandage and the medical home is to give people more control of their
own health, so that they and their doctors are better prepared to deal with health
The technology Miller is pursuing may go well beyond the home as well. The food
packaging industry has shown interest, since a wrapping, say around a pound of
ground beef, may be able to change to a cautioning yellow if the meat is contaminated.
Or, in Third World countries where pollution of drinking water is a constant threat,
plastic cups or water jugs could be designed to turn a bright red if there are
dangerous pollutants present. "We may even see this technology being used
as an early warning in the case of biowarfare," he says.
The biggest hurdle to the development of the smart bandage is now cleared. "We've
shown that we can detect and identify a single, distinct kind of bacteria,"
says Miller. "Now that we have that out of the way, we know it can be done.
Finding the molecules to detect other bacteria will be much easier."
The research was funded by the Wm. Keck Foundation.
About the University of Rochester
The University of Rochester (www.rochester.edu) is one of the nation's leading private universities. Located in Rochester, N.Y., the University gives students exceptional opportunities for interdisciplinary study and close collaboration with faculty through its unique cluster-based curriculum. Its College of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering is complemented by the Eastman School of Music, Simon School of Business, Warner School of Education, Laboratory for Laser Energetics, Schools of Medicine and Nursing, and the Memorial Art Gallery.