When a soldier is suffering from an infection, he wants to begin the diagnosis and treatment processes immediately. But current methods take several days to confirm infection, leaving healthcare providers with limited and less-than-ideal options.

A team of West Virginia University scientists, however, is working on a way to quickly detect agents that cause would infections, as a way to serve those brave men and women who serve in the US armed forces.

Letha Sooter, PhD, assistant professor in the WVU School of Pharmacy Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, is part of a team that is developing a simple testing apparatus that will offer rapid results for soldiers.

Much of Dr. Sooter’s research focuses on a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which commonly infects burn wounds. “It releases a toxin that causes a wound to die and inhibits the healing process,” Sooter said.

WVU graduate student Zachary Cox, who is also a member of the West Virginia Air National Guard, works with Sooter, thanks to a scholarship from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) and a partnership with the US Army Natick Soldier, Research, Development, and Engineering Center. “The bacterium P. aeruginosa has been associated with higher mortality in patients as well as increasing care time and cost,” he said. “Diagnosis depends on traditional methods that are reliable but requires substantial time to confirm an infection. Due to the delay in diagnosis, patients are often given antibiotics that can exacerbate antibiotic resistance of the bacteria.”

The WVU team is working to identify binding elements for the bacterium, with the end goal of creating a “really cool device that is super sensitive.” Sooter envisions an optical sensor with a glowing signal if the device detects the causative agents. Collaborating with others experts makes Sooter’s goal achievable. The team includes: WVU Department of Chemistry Associate Professor Lisa Holland, PhD; Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Research Assistant Professor Jeremy Dawson, PhD; and Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Cell Biology Associate Professor Slawomir Lukomski, PhD, ScD.

“They take my binding element and incorporate it into their device, and all of a sudden, we’ve got a state-of-the-art sensor,” Sooter added. “Through WVU’s nanotechnology initiative, called NanoSAFE, that was possible. We’re really focused on getting all of these pieces together, so we can have this cool device.”

While the device will protect soldiers in the field, it will also be useful for detecting P. aeruginosa in civilians, too. In fact, the bacterium is responsible for 10 percent of all hospital-acquired infections, according to Sooter. Developing the new sensor is “a win-win. It’s important for our military, but at the same time, it’s extremely important for everyone at home,” she said.

Sooter admits developing a new device takes years of research and time, but she and the team feel their efforts are worth protecting service men and women.

“Why develop these sensors? There’s a clear, present, unmet need – rapid, point-of-care diagnosis and detection of these agents,” Sooter said. “Say you have a person with a wound, they go to the doctor, the doctor swabs the wound, they have to grow it up in a culture, and a week later they can tell you what you’ve got. In the meantime, the person’s health has deteriorated. The person isn’t receiving the best possible treatment at the earliest possible time, which gives them a less positive health outcome. It’s an increased time of human suffering, increased dollars because that’s more doctor visits for them, and increased time that they have to take off work. All around, there is significant cost associated with delayed diagnosis and detection.”

Other advantages of using Sooter’s testing method include small size, cheap synthesis, environmental stability, and long shelf life. “If you’re in a hospital setting, you want to be able to store these things for a long time,” she said. “You want to be able to expose them to biological fluids and not have them fall apart.”

As a current service member, Cox said the potential applications of this research are especially meaningful to him.

“I consider my research a service to the brave men and women I serve with, and it means a lot that my work could mean less pain and suffering for these individuals,” said Cox, pictured at right. “It is my sincerest hope that this research will be utilized to decrease any undue suffering while allowing for the expedient targeted care these men and women deserve.”

At the end of the day, serving those who serve motivates Sooter.

“The service members who are defending our country and putting themselves in harm’s way every day – I owe everything to them,” she said. “I’m very honored to try and help them and to give back to make their lives easier. In West Virginia, a lot of people are involved directly or have family and friends who are part of the service. I think it’s really important to make them as effective as possible, so they can be as safe as possible, so that they’re all healthy and can come home.”