Faster meningitis test developed in Belfast could save lives

Diagnosising disease difficult for GPs and emergency departments

A rapid meningitis diagnostic test developed by scientists in Belfast could be rolled out in hospitals across Britain and Ireland once its two-year research study finishes in 2019.

Clinical scientist Dr James McKenna from the Belfast Care and Social Trust was the lead researcher in developing the new test which can be completed in under 50 minutes, compared with standard laboratory tests, which can take up to 48 hours.

The time saving would reduce the unnecessary treatment of patients with antibiotics while they await results. Meanwhile, those patients who have contracted meningococcal disease will test positive in a much shorter time and can be treated immediately.

Dr McKenna developed the LAMP (Loop Mediated Isothermal Amplification) test, which can quickly and accurately be used by doctors and nurses outside a laboratory environment to detect tiny quantities of bacterial DNA.


Diagnosis of meningococcal disease – which can lead to meningitis and blood poisoning – is particularly difficult for GPs and emergency departments to detect in its early stages.

Condition deteriorates

Standard laboratory test results can take up to 48 hours, so patients can be given antibiotics when they do not really need them and some children could be wrongly sent home from their doctor or a hospital only to come back a few hours later as their condition deteriorates.

Therefore a test that can rapidly diagnose patients in a hospital emergency department or a doctor’s surgery could be extremely beneficial and will potentially save lives, researchers have said.

In September 2017, Dr Tom Waterfield, as part of a Queen’s University and Paediatric Emergency Research UK and Ireland collaboration, started a two-year study at the Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, to assess the suitability of the LAMP test to diagnose meningococcal disease in a hospital emergency department environment.

Laboratory results

The results from his study, testing more than 100 patients so far, will be compared with standard laboratory results and help to develop new decision rules for clinicians and Dr McKenna hopes it will reduce unnecessarily prescribing antibiotics, and improve patient management.

Once the two-year study is complete it is hoped the LAMP test will be rolled out across paediatric units in Britain and Ireland, Dr McKenna says.

Dr McKenna is happy with how the study is progressing and that the test is now commercially available.

“It’s good to see something you have worked on actually being used,” he said.

“The trust has licensed it to a company in the Republic of Ireland, Hibergene.”

Dr McKenna says vaccination rates in Northern Ireland are high so this will reduce the number of meningococcal cases but it also means new clinicians will have less experience of seeing them, so it becomes even more important that they have good diagnostic tests to help them make a decision.

More generally, he is saddened when people choose not to vaccinate their children against preventable diseases (including meningococcal disease), as is seen in the so-called “anti-vaxxers” movement.

“People worked for years to get rid of all these diseases,” he said.

“Anti-vaxxers are endangering their own children and other peoples children.

“It is very, very sad to see these diseases we thought were gone, could have been eradicated, coming back.”

He believes education, finding better ways to communicate the usefulness of vaccines, is key.