As the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria increasingly threatens the global population, one Israeli company is fast-tracking the ability of doctors to differentiate between bacterial and viral infections.
With its first-generation ImmunoXpert system already on the market, the Tirat Carmel-based MeMed will be revamping its technology in partnership with the United States Department of Defense – after receiving a $9.2 million contract from the latter’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency earlier this week.
Although based on the same fundamental principles as the firm’s existing ImmunoXpert, the forthcoming system will be capable of distinguishing bacterial from viral infections in a matter of minutes, according to the company.
“The rise of strains of bacteria are an eminent threat to both civilian and military [populations],” Eran Eden, co-founder and CEO of MeMed, told The Jerusalem Post
Paradoxically, the rampant overuse of antibiotics in many cases is leading to the development of resistant bacterial strains, while the underuse of such drugs in other cases continues to threaten people’s lives.
About one in every two antibiotics administered to patients is prescribed unnecessarily, while approximately one in five people is not actually receiving antibiotics when he needs them, Eden explained.
“You have both overuse and underuse at the same time,” he said.
As billions of dollars worth of antibiotics are flushed down the drain and as antibiotic- resistant strains of bacteria continue to develop, the ability of doctors to treat neonates, cancer patients and other people requiring such medicinal care is waning, according to Eden. At the same time, the lack of antibiotic use when actually needed is propelling mortality rates.
“We’re on the verge of the end of the antibiotic era,” he said.
MeMed’s technology aims to make medical diagnostics more accurate and expedient, by enabling doctors to determine whether an infection is from bacterial or viral origins at the “point of care” – or the immediate time and place of patient care.
While alternative diagnostic systems for infectious diseases do exist, their mechanisms pose certain challenges to medical professionals, Eden explained.
For example, a culture from a swab will only produce test results in 24 to 32 hours, after the bacteria has had time to grow, he said.
Rapid tests are available for certain illnesses, but only for those with infection sites that are readily accessible – excluding diseases like pneumonia in the lungs or ear infections, according to Eden. Even in rapid tests for easily accessible bacteria, like pneumococcus, the exam might wrongly identify that bacteria as the cause of a patient’s illness, because many children simply carry pneumococcus in their noses, he added.
“It’s hard to apply the current technologies,” Eden said.
About nine years ago, Eden and co-founder Kfir Oved, who serves as the company’s CTO, conceived the idea of being able to quickly provide diagnostic information about an infection’s origins simply by testing a drop of blood. After years of work on what Eden described as an “infinite set of molecules,” the team at MeMed determined the “signature” of three proteins – TRAIL, CRP and IP-10 – whose presence in the blood could diagnose inaccessible infections.
“The immune signature there tells us what’s happening in these inaccessible sites,” Eden said.
An external presence of pneumococcus bacteria in a child’s nose, meanwhile, would not generate an immunological response and therefore could lead to inaccurate results, he explained.
For the researchers at MeMed, the challenge to create an ideal diagnostic system was twofold – the first being the search for molecules that could bear sufficient information and the second being how to measure them, according to Oved. Affectionately referring to the TRAIL, CRP and IP-10 biomarkers as “toffee, cherry and pecan,” Oved stressed the importance of producing a quality instrument that could sufficiently measure their presence anywhere in the world.
“We took technologies that are being used in the central lab and significantly miniaturized them into a small, very clever device, that for the end user is very easy to manipulate,” he said.
Once the MeMed team members “locked the signature,” they performed numerous clinical studies with thousands of patients and ultimately received approval for clinical use in Israel and Europe in 2014.
Since then, MeMed has distributed ImmunoXpert for use in select excellence centers, and in September 2016 the company received a €2.3 million grant from the European Commission for the test’s deployment in Europe.
In partnership with the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, MeMed’s researchers are now at work building the second-generation model. While the fundamental technology is the same, the second generation’s new point-of-care platform will be much easier to use and produce a result in just 15 minutes – as opposed to the two-hour time frame the current version requires.
The Department of Defense partnership is a testament to the magnitude of the struggle the world is facing, as strains of antibiotic- resistant bacteria increasingly threaten the health of the global population, from both a civilian and military perspective, Eden said.
Only by joining forces with other companies, governmental organizations and clinicians, he explained, can researchers hope to find an effective solution to this ubiquitous crisis.
“This is a huge problem,” he said. “No single entity can solve it by itself.”