Testing for the presence of bacteria can be an expensive and lengthy process, but it is essential for determining the potency of antibiotics and other treatments. Now, thanks to research conducted at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, detecting live bacteria is faster—and involves tinier technology—than ever. 

Research published in could pave the way for more targeted antibiotic treatments, using a device the size of a matchbox. This small but mighty apparatus quickly finds bacteria that have been left alive after an antibiotic regimen, making it easier to determine which treatments have been successful.

"This method is fast and accurate. And it can be a precious tool for both doctors looking for the right dosage of antibiotics and for researchers to determine which treatments are the most effective," said Dr. Giovanni Dietler, a professor in EPFL’s Laboratory of the Physics of Living Matter, in a press release.

How Does It Work?

A combination of nano and laser technology makes this bacteria-pinpointing device unique. A tiny lever the width of a human hair vibrates in the presence of bacterial activity. A laser analyzes the vibrations and creates an easy-to-read electrical signal based on the information. No signal means no live bacteria were detected.

The researchers have successfully tested the device on E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. They assessed the movement of the tiny levers to measure changes in bacterial metabolism. Live bacteria, the researchers found, were associated with bigger lever fluctuations than bacteria that had been in contact with antibiotics.

Current detection methods involve culturing bacteria in a lab and monitoring their growth for up to a month to determine whether an antibiotic treatment was completely successful. The matchbox device can produce a result in minutes.

Combating Antibiotic-resistant Bacteria (and Tumors)

Multidrug-resistant bacteria (bacteria with multiple resistance genes) is a serious public health issue, largely attributable to drug misuse, according to the researchers. But finding out which illnesses can be treated with antibiotics is the first step toward weeding out the methods that don’t work, and thereby finding a solution to the problem of resistance.

Researchers say their technology could also someday be adapted to measure how effective chemotherapy treatments are at slowing the metabolism of tumor cells.

"If our method also works in this field, we really have a precious tool on our hands that can allow us to develop new treatments and also test both quickly and simply how the patient is reacting to the cancer treatment," said Sandor Kasas, a scientific collaborator in the Laboratory of the Physics of Living Matter, in a press release.

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