It’s Time for Smarter Pathogen Identification

Infections cause millions of hospital and doctor visits each and every year. Unless these conditions are life threatening or especially resistant to treatment, doctors rarely ascertain their actual cause with certainty. Instead, health care professionals focus on treating the symptoms--many times without ever even knowing if the infection is bacterial or viral in nature. Many patients are frustrated or worried to learn this; and many wonder why, when medicine has come so far, our ability to identify pathogens is apparently so limited. The answer is simple, though not exactly satisfactory: the current standard methodology for identifying pathogens is simply too costly and time-consuming to be of any practical function in most cases that are not completely dependent upon identifying the microbial cause of illness.


The situation is a contributing cause to two big problems currently plaguing the medical industry. For one, it is contributing to the society-wide overuse of antibiotics. After all, when doctors treat illnesses without knowing the exact microbial cause, it becomes inevitable that many viral infections will be treated with antibiotics. This is, of course, an utterly useless form of treatment in the first place, as viruses are not affected by antibiotics. Moreover, it weakens the body’s natural system of beneficial microbes, while fostering a rise in the number of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been declared a serious worldwide threat to public health by the World Health Organization.


The second big problem caused by current inefficiencies in microbial identification is that, when precisely identifying an illness is important, doctors are oftentimes forced to use a slow and expensive “guess-then-test” method.


Fortunately, two new breakthroughs offer the possibility to overcome current challenges: DNA sequencing is easier and more affordable than ever; and existing genome databases are growing rapidly. The bad news is that a number of outdated FDA standards, discussed in this recent Bloomberg article, are currently preventing these new and updated techniques. Hopefully, with increasing pressure from the medical and scientific community, standards will be updated to reflect the reality of modern genome testing, allowing progress to continue.