SCIENTISTS in Scotland have helped develop an imaging technology that can detect deadly pneumonia infections in less than a minute.

Researchers from the Proteus consortium, including the universities of Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Bath, said tests on patients with suspected infections found the approach could detect bacteria deep inside the lung where other technologies fail to reach.

Experts said the technology will enable bedside decision-making for critically ill patients, helping to avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics.

Every year, around 20 million intensive care patients world-wide need ventilators to help them breathe, with around a third suspected of having serious lung infections, such as pneumonia.

This leads to huge antibiotic use, which can increase resistance to drugs and make bacteria harder to treat. Doctors currently test fluid samples from patients’ lungs to check if bacteria are present, but these can take days to return a result and may be inaccurate.

They can also use x-rays, which are overly sensitive and can lead to patients being treated with powerful, but unnecessary, antibiotics.

The new technology involves spraying chemical probes into patients’ lungs which light up when they attach to specific types of infectious bacteria. Fluorescence is detected using tiny fibre-optic tubes that travel deep inside the lungs.

Researchers focused on one of the new probes, designed to detect a subset of bacteria called Gram-negative bacteria – fast becoming the hardest infection to treat with antibiotics and a major cause of pneumonia.

They developed the technology in the lab and tested the probe in patients with a disease called bronchiectasis, which causes repeated cycles of inflammation and infection.

They also tested intensive care patients who had suspected infection.

Striking fluorescence was seen in lungs of bronchiectasis patients and bacteria were successfully visualised in intensive care patients using the same technology with striking results, whereas in some, conventional methods had returned negative results.

The research, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, was supported by charity Wellcome and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Consultant respiratory physician Kev Dhaliwal, Professor of Molecular Imaging & Healthcare Technology at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Drug-resistant bacteria are fast emerging as the greatest threat to humanity. We urgently need to develop and test new ways to diagnose infections in patients and also to improve our understanding of human disease.

“Our interdisciplinary Proteus team is developing next-generation technologies to improve patient care.”