Researchers at the University of New Mexico have developed an innovative technology for quickly and easily detecting pneumonic tularemia infection, a severe form of the disease, and recently were issued a patent for the new, non-invasive tularemia “breath test.”
Tularemia infection is a disease that affects people and other animals, caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. A person can be infected through bug bites, such as ticks and deer flies, contact with infected animals, by eating or drinking contaminated foods, or — as with pneumonic tularemia — by inhaling the airborne bacteria. Like with many other lung infections, diagnosis is only available through blood or sputum culture, taken more than 48 hours after exposure. This delay is problematic for pneumonic tularemia, which is so highly contagious it has been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a potential warfare bio-agent. Also, its type A strain can be deadly if left untreated.
The researchers — Dr. Seong Won Choi, Dr. Terry Wu, and Dr. Graham Timmins — are with the UNM’s Health Sciences Center, and Dr. Timmins is also chief science advisor at Avisa Pharma Inc., headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Avisa is marketing his patent portfolio of fast (10 minutes), diagnostic breath tests for tularemia and other bacterial diseases, such as tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis, ventilator-assisted and healthcare-caused pneumonias, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The company is also developing a portable detection device — a laser spectrometer called the AVISAR SPEC — to be used with the breath test in medical clinics, hospitals, and rural health centers. “This newly issued patent that utilizes the citrulline biomarker when coupled with the AVISAR SPEC™ can provide government agencies with a point-of-care product for the early detection of a bioterror agent such as tularemia anywhere in the world,” David Joseph, Avisa’s CEO who co-founded the company with Timmins in 2010, said in a press release.
The breath test platform works by measuring an increase in isotopically labeled carbon dioxide and ammonia gases in exhalations, which result from enzyme activity between isotopically labeled citrulline and the bacterium. The exhaled gases are biomarkers of the infection’s presence. The test, according to the release, can selectively detect and type (A or B strain) F. tularensis in infected people, and also determime if prescribed antibiotics are working. The method can also be applied to urine, whole blood, plasma and serum samples.
Avisa’s breath test technology, a state-of-the art and noninvasive medical test, has the potential to become an enabling technology for the detection and therapeutic monitoring of respiratory diseases. At present, no non-sputum, point-of-care methods exist to detect a respiratory infection with immediate follow up or monitoring, the company reports.
“Dr. Timmins has received patents for the other breath test technologies in his patent portfolio,” said Lisa Kuuttila, CEO of the university’s technology transfer arm, STC.UNM. “Adding the tularemia patent is a valuable asset for Avisa and validates the strength of the science behind the innovation. It is exciting to see an inventor and the company commercializing his technologies collaborating so productively. Dr. Timmins is very passionate about improving the diagnosis and treatment of bacterial lung diseases that affect the young, the elderly, and poor populations around the world.”