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Health & Baby

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Seeking a Killer

When Doctors Can't Wait

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Jan. 15, 2001 -- When Naomi Williams' first child, Julian, was born in 1996, at first he seemed the picture of health. But as she and her husband Dan fussed over their newborn in the recovery room, Julian began to seem lethargic and threw up some clear liquid. His temperature dropped steadily despite skin-to-skin contact and heated blankets.

Then -- less than six hours after he was born -- the Williamses watched helplessly as Julian was whisked from his mother's arms into the neonatal intensive care unit. Doctors at the San Francisco hospital feared a blood-borne infectious condition called neonatal sepsis, which can swiftly progress in infants to cause death.

The next time Naomi Williams saw her son, he lay in an incubator under 24-hour observation, hooked to an intimidating array of machines that provided, among other things, intravenous antibiotics.

You may never have heard of neonatal sepsis, a worldwide killer that's comparatively uncommon in the U.S. because it's easily treated with antibiotics. But every year, according to government estimates, 300,000 American newborns are rushed into intensive care, stuck with an IV, and placed amid a tangle of monitors for anywhere from 24 hours to a week or more, because doctors fear they have sepsis.

In fact, according to the same estimates, only one in 17 infants treated for sepsis actually has it. The problem: The best test currently available is a blood culture that takes days to accurately diagnose sepsis, while the infectious condition can kill an infant within hours. Doctors can't afford to wait.

Now a new blood test being clinically evaluated could spare the anguish for the vast majority of such families -- and at least some of the estimated $800 million in annual treatment costs. The Williams family, fully insured, racked up $15,000 in intensive-care charges for Julian. "What if we hadn't had insurance, or had been underinsured?" wonders Naomi Williams.

The new test, originally developed by a team of researchers at Stanford University and licensed to Massachusetts-based CompuCyte Corp., could provide a definitive diagnosis of sepsis in less than 20 minutes. It works by measuring inflammation in white blood cells. "There are very few conditions in which an infant at birth, or shortly after birth, shows evidence of overwhelming inflammation. The white blood cells are very sensitive to infection, and the body's reaction is to turn those on as the first line of defense to kill bacteria," says Timothy Holzer, PhD, CompuCyte's vice president for biomedical development.

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