A new portable testing device could help healthcare workers identify bacterial infections in areas without access to modern pathology facilities, including warzones or rugged locations.

The World Health Organization has prioritised the fight against antibiotic resistance due to it’s potential to undermine years of successful drug development. As a result, many diseases now only seen in developing nations may return, such as tuberculosis.

Development of the small device has been funded by the US Defense Department and the Gates Foundation, the charitable foundation of Bill and Melinda Gates. It consists of 16 chambers which contain genetic material from bacteria often resistant to antibiotics. When a ‘match’ is made in the DNA, the chamber lights up to alert the doctor. They can then decide to go the extra mile to obtain the best drug for that infection or quarantine the patient to prevent it from being spread.

It is still early days for the device. The American researchers have created a company to raise more funds to improve the technology so that it may be commercially distributed in the future.

There are a number of causes of antibiotic resistance, but all are related to the inappropriate use of antibiotics.

When a patient presents with a likely bacterial infection doctors will ask pathology staff to identify the bacteria and test it for resistance to antibiotics. This ensures they prescribe a drug that will work well against that specific infection.

In remote areas or regions without adequate healthcare infrastructure this is not always possible, so doctors will prescribe a ‘broad spectrum’ antibiotic. These are antibiotics that can kill a lot of different types of bacteria, but often with results that are adequate without being excellent. Strong bacteria will not be killed by the drug and when they multiply, their offspring will also be able to survive exposure to the medication.

Other causes include the overuse of antibiotics in the farming industry to prevent costly outbreaks in herds or flocks. In a major win for those advocating for action against the problem, the American Food and Drug Administration banned the use of certain antibiotics in domestic hand soaps and detergents in 2016.

A simple cause that you can do something about is following doctor’s orders with regards to taking antibiotics. Always finish the full course of antibiotics as directed by your doctor, even when if you start to feel better partway through.

Here is Know Pathology Know Healthcare Ambassador Professor Peter Collignon discussing the problem of antibiotic resistance. Credit to the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University for this video.