Thanks to a new test evaluated by Medical College of Wisconsin researchers and implemented at Froedtert & MCW Froedtert Hospital, patients suspected of contracting meningitis — a potentially fatal disease that demands quick detection — are getting diagnosed significantly faster, with treatments tailored to the specific infecting organism.

In less than two hours, the test pinpoints whether the meningitis is viral, bacterial or fungal.

“The old tests, which usually required growing bacterial cultures, took up to three days,” said Nathan Ledeboer, PhD, MCW assistant professor of pathology and medical director, microbiology, at Froedtert Hospital. “Meningitis is a life-and-death infection. Every hour counts.”

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Blake Buchan, PhD, MCW assistant professor of pathology, said symptoms include headache, stiff neck, nausea and sensitivity to light. Ironically, the new test was used last summer to confirm Buchan had contracted viral meningitis, unrelated to his research.

“The test gives patients a faster route to appropriate therapy,” he said. “The symptoms for different kinds of meningitis are basically the same, but treatments are different. It’s very beneficial to quickly determine the type with certainty.”

In the past, doctors would run through a mental checklist of likely causes and order specific tests to confirm their suspicions. But without the right test, the cause could go undetected longer. Buchan said bacterial cultures are, at best, 70 to 80 percent effective in detecting meningitis causes.

The new test detects all types of meningitis — a medical one-stop shop. “That’s transformative,” Ledeboer said. “An advantage is that it looks for things we may not have considered.”

By federal law, hospitals can’t use new diagnostic tests like this unless they can verify manufacturers’ results through independent research, which Buchan and Ledeboer did in their role as test evaluators last year.

“Our research capabilities reflect our commitment to quality and groundbreaking diagnostics,” Ledeboer said. “Because we participate in these kinds of studies, we are able to bring these tests on board so we can continually improve the care we deliver to our patients.”

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Gail Bailey

I am grateful for this rapid testing. It’s a game changer in diagnosing bacterial meningitis. This hideous disease took my 20 yo son’s life.