It is one of the last areas of pathology testing to be automated: diagnosing which strain of bacteria is contained in potentially infected samples such as urine, sputum, wound swabs and fecal samples.
And doing it faster could save lives, allowing more rapid diagnosis of infections and early choice of the right line of treatment.
South Australian company LBT Innovations Ltd has worked with the University of Adelaide to develop an automated tool for diagnosing infections. Known as APAS – Automated Plate Assessment System – the technology incorporates computer vision to hasten the time required to detect infections in samples from patients.
“APAS accurately captures, reads and interprets bacterial cultures significantly faster than a trained scientist,” says LBT Innovations CEO Lusia Guthrie.
“Once incorporated into pathology services, we anticipate this technology will create significant cost reductions and save lives.”
After conducting clinical trials of APAS with more than 10,000 patient samples in Australia and USA, LBT Innovations is submitting the technology to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval as a diagnostic tool.
Improving old technology
Although over 130 years old, the use of gel plates to grow and identify bacteria still sits at the heart of modern diagnostic services.
For example, if you have a suspected urinary tract infection, a small sample of your urine will be smeared over a plate of solid gel. After incubation, a scientist examines the plate to classify any bacteria that have grown. Appropriate drug treatment can then be selected. The whole process takes 3–4 days, sometimes up to an entire week.
“Although around 70% of cultured plates are actually negative for bacteria, it typically takes a whole shift of human workers to sort through which ones need further analysis,” Guthrie says.
“APAS will significantly reduce this sample processing time.”
Cutting time from the analytical process will have an impact through reducing labour costs, allowing patients shorter lengths of stay in hospitals and freeing up microbiologists to focus on positive samples that require immediate specialist attention.
“We’re currently conducting market research to calculate the impact of this in dollar terms,” says Guthrie.
Industry and university collaboration
LBT Innovations worked with University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Visual Technologies (ACVT) to develop the plate reading capability in APAS.
“APAS consists of an image capture system linked to a computer loaded with algorithms that allow the plates to be categorised based on their appearance,” explains Professor Anton Van Den Hengel, Director at ACVT.
“One of the keys to successfully developing this technology has been to embed our engineer Rhys Hill within the LBT Innovations offices for the duration of the project.”
“With clear communication and a strong working relationship, it’s been a collaborative process of technology development,” says Van Den Hengel.
The intellectual property associated with APAS is fully owned by LBT Innovations.
Market for better, faster diagnostics
The latest clinical tests show that APAS algorithms are working for diagnosis of urinary cultures, with over 98% accuracy in detecting bacterial growth on plates.
Urinary tract infections are estimated to affect 150 million people each year globally, and the societal costs – including health care and time missed from work – are approximately US$3.5 billion per year in the USA alone.
Other samples that require plate culture and analysis for diagnosis include stool (bowel infections), sputum (respiratory tract infections), wound swabs (skin and tissue infections) and blood (septicaemia).
LBT Innovations plans to expand APAS testing for approval in all these fields. The company estimates there are 27,000 laboratories globally that can immediately benefit from APAS. The largest of these facilities process about 4000 plate samples every day.
“Laboratories are under pressure to process more samples and to do it faster, despite limits on budgets and human resources,” explains Guthrie.
“Once it’s approved, we plan to launch APAS in Australia and then roll it out into the USA, Canada, UK and Europe.”
LBT Innovations created a joint venture with German engineering company Hettich AG to fully develop commercial products that incorporate APAS technology with sophisticated plate-handling robotics.