In just a few decades, superbugs – bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics – could kill more people each year than cancer. An Israeli firm called MeMed believes it has the technology to prevent that – and last week, the European Commission gave the company three million euros to further develop its testing technology to more accurately treat patients with lower respiratory tract infections.

MeMed, which beat out 90 other candidates for the award, was granted the money by the EC for its “groundbreaking products that have the potential to profoundly impact the EU economy and global healthcare.”

Superbugs are a threat not just to world health but to the world economy as well, according to the UK government-sponsored Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. Already, the study said, drug-resistant bugs are responsible for over 700,000 deaths worldwide annually, and that number that could grow to 10 million by 2050. Dealing with the problem could cost $100 trillion – as much as 3.5% of the world’s GDP – and that doesn’t include secondary and tertiary costs (e.g., losses due to the expected death of nightlife, as people avoid restaurants and the movies because of the pandemics that will become common).

How do bugs become drug-resistant? Most scientists believe that overuse of antibiotics is a key factor. But it’s unfair to blame doctors, write MeMed’s CTO and CEO, Kfir Oved and Eran Eden, in the journal Pathology. “It must be acknowledged that misuse is not simply due to irresponsible prescribing, and is often driven by the difficulty in ascertaining the cause of the disease – bacteria or virus – especially in the early stages. The symptoms of many illnesses are similar, and lab tests such as C-reactive protein (CRP) or white blood cell count just aren’t accurate enough to tell apart bacterial and viral infections.”

In other words, it’s difficult for doctors to distinguish between conditions – and especially if a disease is due to bacteria or a virus. If the latter, all the antibiotics in the world won’t help patients – but overdosing them with antibiotics will give whatever germs are already in the system an opportunity to build up resistance, which will be passed on to the next generation of germs, further contributing to the rise of the superbugs.

While it’s hard for doctors – and drugs – to distinguish between bacteria and viruses, the body knows the difference quite well, and reacts differently according to which it’s invaded by. MeMed’s innovation is examining the responses triggered in the immune system in order to determine what the problem is, and to use that information to determine the best course of action.

“For the past four years, our team has been collaborating with leading clinicians and scientists from around the world to develop and validate our novel approach for distinguishing between bacterial and viral infections,” said Eden. “Unlike most traditional diagnostics, this approach builds on an exquisitely informative system crafted by nature – the human immune system. Our scientists have figured out how to decode the actions of the immune system doing what it does best–detecting and responding to the precise cause of infection.”

By conducting extensive screening of immune system proteins in patients with acute infections, MeMed researchers were able to identify three soluble proteins that are uniquely activated by bacteria or viruses. They then developed proprietary algorithms that integrate these proteins to produce an “immune signature,” a set of data that accurately identifies the cause of infection. MeMed has developed several products that utilize this technology, one of them a blood test, called ImmunoXpert, to determine whether a patient has an acute bacterial or viral infection.

In a recent study published in scientific journal PLOS One, the immune signature for ImmunoXpert was able to successfully determine who of 1002 patients in the study was suffering from a viral or bacterial infection.

We conducted big data filtering, followed by extensive screening of 600 immune system-related proteins,” said MeMed CTO Oved. “A few of the proteins showed distinctly different patterns in bacterial and viral infected patients. In particular, the most informative protein we found, called TRAIL, dramatically increased in the blood of patients infected with a wide range of viruses, but surprisingly, decreased in bacterial infections. Our team developed an algorithm that computationally integrates TRAIL with other immune proteins to diagnose the cause of the infection with high accuracy.”

If the MeMed system can distinguish between bacterial and viral infections, it may also be able to distinguish between specific conditions that are hard to diagnose – like lower respiratory tract infections, the EC believes. In Europe alone, 30 million people contract an LRTI annually, resulting in more than 1 million hospitalizations and 230,000 deaths. Total direct and indirect costs related to LRTIs in Europe are estimated to be €46 billion annually.

“LRTIs, primarily pneumonia and bronchitis, are a major leading cause of death and ill-health worldwide. This innovative new diagnostic test aims to provide clinicians with simple, accurate, and actionable information, at the place and time when it is most needed, to guide appropriate therapy and improve management of patients,” said John Hurst, MD, reader in Respiratory Medicine at University College London.

“We are excited by this unique vote of confidence from the European Commission,” said Eden. “This funding will accelerate our development efforts and enable us to help a wider range of patients sooner.”