A new technology developed at the University of New Mexico for detecting pneumonic tularemia infection has received an issued patent. The inventors are Drs. Seong Won Choi, Graham Timmins and Terry Wu at UNM’s Health Sciences Center.

Timmins is a faculty member in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at UNM’s College of Pharmacy and chief science advisor to Avisa Pharma Inc., located in Santa Fe, N.M. Avisa is commercializing his patent portfolio of rapid, point-of-care, diagnostic breath tests for this and other bacterial diseases including tuberculosis, cystic fibrosis, ventilator-assisted and healthcare-acquired pneumonias and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Tularemia is a disease in animals and humans caused by the highly infectious bacterium Francisella tularensis. People can become infected from the bites of infected ticks and deer flies, handling infected animals, eating and drinking contaminated food and water, or inhaling the airborne bacteria. No human-to-human transmission has been report. As with other lung infections, diagnosis is done through blood or sputum culture and can take more than 48 hours to confirm.

Related: Tularemia in the US: Increase in cases, different states hardest hit

Pneumonic tularemia, caused by inhaling the bacteria, is a severe form of the disease. Its Type A strain, if left untreated, can be fatal for more than 50 percent of those infected. F. tularensis is so infectious that it has been identified by the Centers for Disease Control as a potential biological warfare agent. Early detection and treatment of the bacterium would lead to improved recovery rates and better outcomes for patients.

The breath test platform technology rapidly measures an increase in isotopically labeled carbon dioxide and ammonia gasses in exhaled breath that are the result of enzymatic activity between inhaled isotopically labeled citrulline and the bacterium. The exhaled gasses serve as biomarkers for the presence of the infection. The test can selectively detect and type (A and B strain) F. tularensis in those with the infection, and can determine whether prescribed antibiotic treatment is working. The detection method can also be used with urine, whole blood, plasma, and serum samples.

Breath tests are recognized as the next innovation in non-invasive medical testing and the breath tests being developed by Avisa have the potential to be an enabling technology for detection and therapeutic monitoring of respiratory infections and diseases. An enabling technology is an invention that can spur radical change and is often characterized by the number of related technologies and diverse applications it generates. Currently, there are no non-sputum, point-of-care technologies that can rapidly detect if a patient has a respiratory infection for follow-up with immediate treatment and monitoring of therapy.

Avisa CEO David Joseph, an experienced life science entrepreneur, co-founded Avisa with Timmins in 2010. The company is developing a portable detection device, a laser spectrometer called the AVISAR SPEC™, that will be used with the 10-minute breath test in rural health clinics and modern medical clinics and hospitals.

“This newly issued patent that utilizes the citrulline biomarker when coupled with the AVISAR SPEC™ can provide government agencies with a point-of-care product for the early detection of a bioterror agent such as tularemia anywhere in the world,” Joseph said.

“Dr. Timmins has received patents for the other breath test technologies in his patent portfolio,” said STC CEO Lisa Kuuttila. “Adding the tularemia patent is a valuable asset for Avisa and validates the strength of the science behind the innovation. It is exciting to see an inventor and the company commercializing his technologies collaborating so productively. Dr. Timmins is very passionate about improving the diagnosis and treatment of bacterial lung diseases that affect the young, the elderly, and poor populations around the world.”