Fast DNA sequencing halts MSRA outbreak

Scientists recently used fast DNA sequencing technology to stop an outbreak of an infectious disease superbug in a hospital setting.

The technique was used for the first time against an outbreak of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in a baby ward. Its success suggests that the same technique could be effective in hospitals against salmonella, E. coli and possibly diseases such as tuberculosis, according to NBC News.

"What we have glimpsed through this pioneering study is a future in which new sequencing methods will help us to identify, manage and stop hospital outbreaks," Dr. Nick Brown, an infection control doctor at Addenbrooke's Hospital Cambridge, said, Reuters reports.

Brown co-led the study and recently presented its findings for the first time.

MSRA is a drug-resistant bacterial infection that is rapidly becoming a public health problem. When it appears in hospitals it can often lead to the closure of entire wards. In the United States, approximately 19,000 people die from the infection annually. MSRA is present in approximately one percent of the population and does not always cause severe infection.

Brown's team, along with Julian Parkhill from Britain's Sanger Institute, analyzed MSRA samples from 12 patients using DNA sequencing technology. When they found that the bacteria were related, they knew they had an outbreak on their hands as opposed to a series of isolate incidents.

They then traced relatives and others with links to the hospital and found MSRA in twice as many people as they expected. The team used advanced DNA sequencing to demonstrate in real time that a newly found MSRA case in an infant was also part of the outbreak. This raised the possibility that a staff member was unknowingly carrying and transmitting the MSRA strain.

The researchers were correct. They found one hospital worker out of 154 carrying the bacteria. They were quickly treated and the outbreak halted.

"This technology holds great promise for the quick and accurate identification of bacterial transmissions in our hospitals and could lead to a paradigm shift in how we manage infection control and practice," Parkhill said, NBC News reports.