New test can detect immune problems in minutes

April 30, 2012 5:45:49 AM PDT
Alex Stettner is actually feeling pretty good, considering that he and his brother were born with a condition that's devastated their immune systems.

"They do infusions that give them other people's antibodies. So they're using other people's immune systems basically," said Tracy Stettner, Alex's mom.

Alex's mom says those treatments have bolstered the boy's ability to fight off infection. But in Alex's case, it took two years before doctors diagnosed the condition known as common variable immune deficiency.

That delay in diagnosis, however, could soon be a thing of the past. Bay Area researchers have developed a new diagnostic device that they say can check the health of a patient's immune system in a fraction of the time of older tests.

Dr. Manish Butte is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. He's also the lead inventor of a device that can quickly spot dozens of immune system diseases.

Stanford has now patented the device with the aim of partnering with a private firm to develop a commercial version, according to Dr. Butte.

He says the inspiration for the device came after he treated two girls who suffered from SCID -- commonly known as the "bubble boy disease."

"These kids have no T Cells. If you could count them up, if there was a way, you could tell the mom and dad that child has SCID," Dr. Butte said.

He says the system works with a single drop of blood placed in a glass container. There it's mixed with specially designed antibodies containing bits of metal.

The antibodies bind with the white blood cells researchers want to count and are separated into a channel with magnetic force. In the final step, the machine shines laser light through the channel to take a measurement.

By measuring the white blood cells, he says the prototype can detect common immune deficiencies in an infant in about 15 minutes. That's much faster than current tests, which can take more than a month to deliver results.

"If they didn't have T cells we could flag it in the nursery and do a bone marrow transplant," said Dr. Butte. And earlier interventions have been shown to have a much higher success rate.

The Stettners say just knowing their options at birth could give other families a jump on the road to treatment.

"We spent two years getting a diagnosis so it would be to know from the very beginning, what you as a family can do to help them, would be life changing," Tracy Stettner said.

Written and produced by Tim Didion

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