Hospital deaths from sepsis could be slashed by a test which identifies patients at the highest risk, research suggests.

A breakthrough in the understanding of how people rapidly deteriorate when sepsis has struck could even lead to new treatments for the condition, scientists claim.

Sepsis, known as the ‘silent killer’, hits when an infection such as blood poisoning sparks a violent immune response in which the body attacks its own organs.

It is the leading cause of avoidable death in the UK, affecting an estimated 260,000 people a year and killing at least 44,000.

Scientists think they now have worked out how to spot severely ill patients at an early stage – which could be made into a blood test

The condition is notoriously difficult to diagnose until it has spread throughout the body.

If it is caught early, antibiotics can control the infection before the body’s immune response goes into overdrive.

But if doctors do not diagnose it early enough, there is little they can do to control its spread.

Scientists in the US now think they now have worked out how to spot severely ill patients at an early stage, potentially saving countless lives.

The Mail launched the ‘End the Sepsis Scandal’ campaign in January to raise awareness of symptoms among patients and staff.

The campaign was triggered by revelations of the death of William Mead, who died at the age of 12 months in 2014 after a catalogue of errors, misdiagnoses and missed opportunities by doctors and NHS helpline staff.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in December announced a major public awareness drive to tackle sepsis, in a significant victory for the Mail’s campaign.

But a proper test for the problem could make an even bigger difference to outcomes.

Sepsis, known as the ‘silent killer’, hits when an infection such as blood poisoning sparks a violent immune response in which the body attacks its own organs (stock)

A team at Duke University in North Carolina has now made the first strides to that goal by identifying a molecule which is present in very high levels if someone’s immune system is in a ‘runaway’ state with sepsis.

In tests on 121 patients, they found they could predict with 80 per cent accuracy if sepsis would lead to death or survival depending on levels of the molecule, which is called methylthioadenosine or MTA.

Professor Dennis Ko, a researcher on the team, said that in time, this could be developed into a rapid blood test for patients at severe risk.

Picking the right patients to treat might mean drugs that have been abandoned for sepsis might be more effective than thought.

Many treatments that suppress the immune system have been trialled in the past, but none have succeeded.

Professor Ko, of the Duke University School of Medicine, said: ‘This area has been a graveyard for the pharmaceutical industry, with more than 100 failed clinical trials of therapies that target the body’s abnormal response to infection.

‘It may be that these failed clinical trials are not actually failures of treatment, but rather failures of diagnosis.

‘With better biomarkers, we may be able to group sepsis patients into more refined categories to more effectively test and possibly even resurrect old drugs.’

Professor Ko, whose work is published in the journal Science Advances, also thinks his team may be able to develop their own sepsis treatment by artificially injecting the MTA molecule to people whose levels are too low.


Blood pressure pills costing just 7p a day could be a major new weapon against sepsis, researchers found in January.

A study showed the drugs, called calcium channel blockers, halve the risk of dying from sepsis, which kills more than one in three victims.

Millions already take the tablets, which include brands Amlostin, Adizem and Felotens, to lower blood pressure or prevent chest pain caused by angina. 

Dutch scientists believe the cheap and relatively safe pills could help slash the death toll from sepsis – higher than cancer of the breast, bowel and prostate combined. 

They tested the theory on mice, finding that animals injected with the molecule were more likely to survive the condition.

Professor Ko stressed much more work needs to be done before a test or treatment could make it into hospitals.

‘It gets very complicated very fast,’ he said. ‘Some people might have too robust of an inflammatory response, some people might not have a robust enough response, and as a result their MTA levels will differ, both between individuals and within an individual over the course of an illness.

‘Biomarkers could determine where individuals fall along that continuum, and what treatments might work.’

Dr Ron Daniels, chief executive of the UK Sepsis Trust, last night welcomed the findings – though he stressed it would be some time before such a test would be seen in British hospitals.

‘It’s fantastic that people are now earnestly researching how we can identify which people will quickly deteriorate from sepsis,’ he said.

‘The noise that people are making about sepsis is partly responsible for this research interest.’

He added: ‘This is an interesting new development which may well pave the way for the way we target sepsis in the future,’ he said.

‘It is one of several research avenues which we hope will change the way sepsis will be treated.’