Sepsis, a serious blood infection, is a leading cause of death in U.S. hospital emergency rooms. But advances in technology are helping area hospitals target treatments more quickly and accurately.

Current bacterial identification tests take 36 to 48 hours to yield results. But now, doctors at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia have a new diagnostic tool in their emergency room arsenal -- MALDI-TOF -- promising to speed up that process.

"MALDI-TOF should improve the turnaround time by at least 24 hours," said Dr. Amity Roberts, director of microbiology at Jefferson.

When a patient has serious infection such as sepsis, that time gained could save a life.

"It makes a huge difference. For the most part, every hour of delayed treatment can increase the chance that the patient won't survive," said Roberts.

How does it work?
MALDI-TOF stands for Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization - Time of Flight. It uses lasers to break down and ionize blood and other cultures, getting at identifying information quickly.

"It's actually analyzing the DNA or genetic material of the bacteria," said Dr. Neil Fishman of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. "Then it compares the profile of the genetic material to a library that contains the genetic profile of a lot of different germs."

Roberts said MALDI-TOF technology has been used in chemistry for years, but only in the past five years have hospitals adopted protocols around using it as a microbial diagnostic tool.

With speed also comes accuracy. By getting an exact diagnosis a day faster, doctors deliver targeted – instead of broad-spectrum – antibiotics. This could slow the growth of drug-resistant bacteria in hospitals, and, doctors hope, reduce hospital deaths due to sepsis.

Still, the tool does not identify viruses and other common causes of infection, such as yeasts and fungi.

While Jefferson is the first hospital in the area to offer the test, but the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania has a plan to launch its own MALDI-TOF protocol soon.