Sniffing out stomach bugs could save NHS millions

Testing has begun on a device that can sniff out the presence of disease by smell.

Developed by Professors Chris Probert from the University of Bristol and Norman Ratcliffe from the University of the West of England, OdoReader uses pioneering technology to rapidly diagnose Clostridium difficile, by ‘reading’ the odour of stool samples. Clostridium difficile may cause severe diarrhoea, especially amongst hospital patients.

With the help of University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, the technology enables gasses emitted from faeces to be analysed in under an hour, leading to a rapid and inexpensive diagnosis. Such early detection could reap real health benefits for millions of people and help prevent the spread of infectious disease.

Gastro-intestinal diseases afflict over four billion adults and children each year. Delays in diagnosis can lead to patients being ill for longer, some may die, many will cost more to treat and infections may spread to other people. In England and Wales there are over 50,000 cases of Clostridium difficile reported each year: this infection prolongs a stay in hospital, is associated with a high number of deaths and costs the NHS £200 million annually.

The OdoReader device

A £1.3 million Wellcome Trust Translation Award will cover a three-year programme of work. It will support the development of OdoReader prototypes, which will then be tested against the industry gold standard method of making the diagnosis. The final produce will undergo a clinical trial before becoming available for sale around 2013. Says Chris Probert, Professor of Gastroenterology at the University of Bristol, and Consultant Gastroenterologist at University Hospitals Bristol:

“For a long time it has been known that stools have a distinctive and different odour if there is an infection. What OdoReader does is take this knowledge a step further by comparing the odour of faeces of patients with those from patients with specific gastro-intestinal disease to make a rapid diagnosis at the point of care.”

It’s also thought that OdoReader has potential far beyond that of being a portable device for diagnosing C difficile. It could be used for a range of other gastrointestinal disease as well as lung and urinary tract diseases.

Climate change – again: Are we in trouble, or not?

Two scientific studies produced recently show just how difficult it is for us to work it out.

First, a bit of background.

Any process that removes carbon from the atmosphere can act as a carbon sink. These include basic processes like having the gas dissolve into the ocean, to more complex ones, such as the sequestration that appears to take place in mature forests. Taken together though, the impact is huge.

We think that carbon sinks remove about 60 per cent of the CO2 that us humans pump into the atmosphere each year. What’s left is referred to as the airborne fraction.

Now – researchers from the University of Bristol’s QUEST programme on climate change and earth system modelling say in one breath that over the last 50 years the average fraction of global CO2 emissions that remained in the atmosphere each year has increased from 40 to 45 per cent.

This suggests a decrease in the efficiency of the natural sinks – such as the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.

However, a second team found no increase in the airborne fraction over the same period and that the trend was in fact -0.2 ± 1.7 per cent per decade – which is essentially zero – concluding that the capacity of terrestrial ecosystems and the oceans to absorb CO2 has not diminished.

Says science commentator Anthony Watts:

“This work is extremely important for climate change policy, because emission targets to be negotiated at next month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen have been based on projections that have a carbon free sink already factored in. Some researchers have cautioned against this approach, pointing at evidence that suggests the sink has already started to decrease.”

But, who’s right? Says Ars Technica‘s John Timmer:

“These are two highly technical papers that use different data sets and different methods; it’s no surprise that they’ve reached different conclusions, and it will probably take the scientific community a few months of digesting them and comparing them to previously published work in order to reach a consensus on which one (if either) is likely to better reflect reality. Using them to generate competing coverage in the popular press doesn’t do a public that understands climate science poorly any favors.”

Understanding climate change

A new study of Antarctica’s climate history shows that in some brief warm periods between ice ages, temperatures were up to 60°C warmer than today. The findings could aid our understanding of rapid climate changes.

Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the Open University and the University of Bristol, explain that until now temperatures during the warm periods between ice ages – known as interglacials – were thought to be slightly warmer than those of the present day.

However, some brief spikes in temperature – which recur roughly every 100,000 years and last a few thousand years – seem to have been a lot warmer.

It is quite difficult to reconstruct temperatures from long ago. Although it is generally accepted that the climate was warmer 125,000 years ago, the BAS’ results suggest it was much warmer than previously thought.  It will be interesting to see if other studies agree with its findings.

Ice cores from East Antarctica contain the oldest drilled ice on Earth, and provide a unique record of past climate.  Analysis of the ice cores has revolutionised our understanding of how Antarctic climate has varied in the past. The BAS’ ice core scientist Eric Wolff, a world-leading expert on past climate, says:

During the last warm period sea level was around five metres higher than it is today. If we can pin down how much warmer temperatures were in Antarctica and Greenland at this time, then we can test predictions of how melting of the large ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise.

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