A swab may be enough to identify infants who are at risk of becoming deaf. In fact, the team of Dr. Bill Newman has developed a test to diagnose allergy to gentamicin. This antibiotic saves the lives of approximately 90,000 infants per year. In the presence of a particular genetic anomaly, however, it leads to hearing loss. The test in question could avoid the problem.
About one in 500 people have a genetic variant that makes them sensitive to gentamicin. This has been known for 25 years, but traditional genetic tests take days. In an emergency, it is impossible to say whether or not the newborn presents the variant in a short time. Doctors are therefore forced to give the life-saving drug immediately, all without knowing if it will cause hearing loss in the newborn.
The new test detects the genetic variant in 20 minutes. Doctors take cells with a small sample. At this point they analyze them with a machine the size of a PC, designed to look for that specific variant. If successful, doctors can prescribe alternative therapy and save the baby's hearing.
At the moment, the test is still being evaluated. Researchers are testing it in the St Mary's Hospital intensive neonatology area, already achieving excellent results. If it were used in all hospitals in the British health system, it could avoid deafness to more than 180 infants per year.