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Detect all germs? RNA provides quick way for diagnosing infections and spotting drug resistance

The search for new treatments for infectious diseases gets a lot of attention. But to treat something, we first need to know what we’re dealing with. That’s not always easy. The backbone of diagnosis is still built from old methods that include growing mystery germs in lab cultures, or checking how they react to specific chemicals. These techniques require special training and can be time-consuming. Unlike medical dramas, where diseases can be diagnosed between quips, the real-life work can take days.

Amy Barczak from Massachussetts General Hospital is developing a diagnostic technique based on RNA, a molecule that is closely related to DNA. Her method can detect a wide range of infections microbes (‘pathogens’), from bacteria to viruses to parasites. At the same time, it can tell if they are resistant to drugs. Barczak has now published an early “proof-of-principle” study showing that her method has potential, but she says that “considerable additional work will be required” to create a test for doctors to use.

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