Meningitis test slashes wait time for results from days to mere hours

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Scientists at Sunnybrook & Women’s have proven that a meningitis diagnostic test they developed produces extremely accurate results in just two to three hours.

Normally, the wait for results from a traditional meningitis test can take from 24 to 48 hours. The new test, called “multiplex polymerase chain reaction” (PCR) is able to detect minute amounts of bacterial DNA in the spinal fluid of patients with meningitis.

Dr. Andy Simor, head of the Microbiology department at Sunnybrook & Women’s and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, says because the test looks for bacterial DNA, it is significantly more accurate than the usual test. “The PCR test is able to identify the two most common causes of meningitis (streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis), even in patients who have had negative results from the conventional test. False negatives are possible with the regular test due to prior and in most cases, ineffective antibiotic treatment.”

In this study, spinal fluid samples from 281 patients were tested with the PCR assay between February 1998 and June 2002. The test was found to be highly accurate (97% sensitivity and 99.6% specificity).

These results indicate that the PCR assay is able to detect the major causes of bacterial meningitis in a matter of hours. This test enables hospital staff to respond rapidly to meningitis infections and give more effective antibiotic treatments. Quick turnarounds in test results can also make decisions about public health and inoculation programs easier.

“Bacterial meningitis is a serious, life-threatening infection. If we are able to detect it earlier we can begin treatment faster and ultimately save lives,” says Dr. Simor. “Since we began this study, the number of requests for the test from across Ontario has been increasing. Our lab receives about one request a week. This is a big win for our lab and indeed for everyone who will benefit from the test but we’re not going to stop there.

“Our test relies on spinal fluid so, the next step will be to develop a test that can be used with a blood sample.”

The Orly Watkin Meningitis Research Fund of Canada supported this research.

In 1994, Shlomo Watkin lost his 15-year-old daughter, Orly to meningitis. To keep Orly’s memory alive and to support meningitis research, Mr. Watkin established the Dance for Orly and the research fund.