UMN tech could help UTI sufferers with quicker diagnosis

The program that helped develop the technology for potential commercialization won't have federal funding next year.

Wesley Hortenbach

People suffering from urinary tract infections may soon be able to buy affordable, at-home diagnosis tests from drugstores, with the help of a new technology from the University of Minnesota.

A University research team received a grant this month to bring the technology — which works like an at-home pregnancy test — to the market. Researchers say MN-REACH, the grant agency, was helpful in making the product marketable, but a lack of funding means the organization may not have a future in Minnesota.

Right now, doctors test for UTIs by looking at a patient’s white blood cell count. However, white blood cells may be present in a person’s body from an infection, like a UTI, or from unrelated inflammation. This means doctors can’t be certain of the diagnosis with the current method, said Valerie Pierre, a chemistry associate professor, who leads the team.

Another option is to perform a petri dish test, but doctors can’t see results for 48 hours, Pierre said.

UTIs can be caused by more than one bacteria, so the team set out to create a probe that could distinguish between types of bacteria without impact from problematic white blood cells. 

Pierre decided to start work on this research following a personal experience with lengthy wait times about three years ago, when her son had a fever.

At the hospital, doctors performed a spinal tap and told Pierre results wouldn’t be available for two days. 

“While I was holding my little baby in my arms for those 48 hours, I thought that was the most absurd thing that we still couldn’t determine quickly whether or not he had a bacterial infection,” Pierre said.

Since UTIs are difficult to diagnose, doctors often prescribe antibiotics just to be safe, even when they’re not sure if a patient has an infection, Pierre said. However, antibiotics also have adverse side effects — like vomiting and diarrhea — that make it dangerous to use them as a crutch, she said.

Physicians are in a tough spot in these situations because they want to help patients feel better, said University pediatrics professor Mark Schleiss.

“We need to be cautious, but also balanced, with the realization that antibiotics can save lives,” Schleiss said. “A doctor might not want to withhold antibiotics because that can be risky as well.”

While the technology has been tested for effectiveness and researchers say it would be appealing for patients, getting the technology on shelves is a difficult process.

“There is a myth in the marketplace that if the idea is great enough it will be in stores overnight,” said Dale Nugent, venture development executive in the Office for Technology Commercialization, who coached Pierre in making her invention more practical for business.

The OTC works with MN-REACH to make technologies marketable, hopefully increasing the chances that a company will pick them up, Nugent said. MN-REACH also helps develop business plans for technologies and provides 17 hours of classroom training for researchers.

“Historically, the biggest problem [with commercialization] is that faculty generally have a poor understanding of commercial enterprise,” said Charles Muscoplat, MN-REACH head and University professor in both medicine and food science. “That’s largely due to not understanding the market since they’ve been doing research their whole career.”

During consultation with MN-REACH, Pierre’s initial proposal underwent changes that will hopefully make the technology more relevant to customers, Muscoplat said.

But in the future, MN-REACH won’t have money to continue working with researchers. Funding for the federally-financed program wasn’t included in the spending bill signed by President Donald Trump last week. 

“Science has not been very well-supported by the last couple of administrations,” Pierre said.

While the program will be dissolved without funding, Muscoplat said he hopes researchers will retain knowledge learned through MN-REACH.

“Cultural change is really what we are after,” he said.