A bug-busting “black box” is being developed that can rapidly identify the source of hospital infections and help staff to stop them spreading.
The device, which combines sophisticated DNA profiling and database analysis, could be available within “a few years”, say scientists.
In an early test of the technology, researchers halted an outbreak of the MRSA superbug in a special care baby unit at the Rosie Hospital in Cambridge.
By quickly identifying the bacterial strains from their genetic codes, or genomes, experts were able to target the transmission path of the infection and cut it off.
It is believed to be the first time DNA sequencing has been used to contain an infectious disease outbreak at a hospital.
The scientists are now developing the concept into a simple system that can be used routinely by hospital staff who are not genetics experts.
In future, it could be used to combat many kinds of infection outbreak, and also help doctors decide the best way of treating patients.
Professor Sharon Peacock, from Cambridge University, who led the research team, told a news briefing in London: “What we’re working towards is effectively a ‘black box’. Information on the genome sequence goes into the system and is interpreted, and what comes out the other end is a report to the health care worker.
“It could, for example, determine the species of the bacterium; it could determine antibiotic susceptibility, and it could provide information about what genes are present that are often associated with poor outcomes in patients.
“It will give information about how related that organism is to other organisms within the same setting, giving an indication of the capability of transmission from one patient to another.”
A report on how the baby unit outbreak was brought under control appears in the latest issue of the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases.
The MRSA outbreak at the Rosie Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, was estimated to have cost the NHS around £10,000. This was double the cost of the DNA sequencing, said the researchers.
Comprehensive databases of bacterial genomes and drug resistance will have to be established before the infection control “black box” can be introduced, they pointed out.
Asked when the technology might become routinely available, Dr Parkhill said: “Maybe in the next few years.”