By Eric Ransom, APHL-CDC Antimicrobial Resistance Fellow
Let’s be honest: printers have never been that great. These frustrating devices turn what should be a simple office task into a game of chance. Is there paper? Did it jam? Can I get by without replacing the toner cartridge… again? Ugh! I personally cannot wait until this archaic technology sails off into the sunset. Goodbye frustration and hello forestation.
You can imagine my surprise when I heard a PRINTER could help fight one of the most significant public health threats of our time: antibiotic resistance. That’s right. The end of the antibiotic era looms, but hope lies with a printer!
To be fair, this is not your ordinary printer that puts ink to paper. This is a bioprinter that “prints” antibiotics! The technology ultimately helps clinicians decide which antibiotic is most likely to be effective in treating an infection. Prescribing the proper antibiotic is key to saving lives today and preserving antibiotics for tomorrow.
More specifically, the bioprinter makes antibiotic panels for broth microdilution susceptibility testing, a gold-standard method in clinical and public health microbiology. To make an antibiotic panel, the bioprinter dispenses minuscule amounts of antibiotics into a 96-well plate containing liquid that supports microbial growth. Microbiologists can then add a patient’s microbe to the plate and observe which antibiotic (or combination of antibiotics) inhibits growth. If an antibiotic inhibits growth on the plate, chances are good that it will also inhibit growth in the person. Results are shared with clinicians so they can prescribe the best antibiotic(s) to treat the infection. What makes the bioprinter unique is that it can easily make antibiotic plates with complex antibiotic combinations and new-to-market antibiotics. The latter is especially exciting given it can take years before new-to-market antibiotics are included on commercially available plates and systems found in most hospital laboratories.
In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a pilot program to implement the bioprinter technology in the Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network, a consortium of 56 public health laboratories that aims to rapidly detect and respond to antibiotic resistance. The pilot program already uses the bioprinter to offer expanded antibiotic susceptibility testing for hard-to-treat infections in four public health laboratories: Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, Minnesota Department of Health Public Health Laboratory, Wadsworth Center Laboratories and Tennessee State Public Health Laboratory. This susceptibility testing is free, compliant with patient testing regulations, and available for all qualifying isolates from any hospital laboratory. The testing is also performed within three working days to quickly assist clinicians with therapeutic management.
The pilot program has already begun susceptibility testing with a new drug combination (aztreonam-avibactam) against Enterobacteriaceae producing a metallo-β-lactamase (MβL). These are some of the most resistant microbes, and there are very few effective treatment options. To qualify for this particular testing, isolates must be non-susceptible to all current β-lactam antibiotics (including either ceftazidime-avibactam or meropenem-vaborbactam). Moving forward, the pilot program will expand testing to include other highly resistant microbes and new-to-market antibiotics.
So how exactly does the bioprinter pilot program work in practice? Let’s say a hospital patient has symptoms of a serious infection. Samples from the patient are tested in the hospital’s laboratory to identify the responsible microbe and to determine possible treatment options. If the microbe is found to be highly resistant and clinicians are in need of additional treatment options, the microbe is sent to one of the four public health laboratories piloting the bioprinter program. Microbiologists there can use the bioprinter to print plates for testing the newest antibiotics to see what, if any, are effective in treating the patient’s infection. Results are then returned to clinicians where the patient is being treated.
Implementation of the bioprinter in the AR Lab Network has the potential to be truly impactful. First, clinicians are given a resource to find new, effective treatment options for their patients’ most resistant infections. Second, compiled data from this pilot program can be used to improve antibiotic prescribing, capture national antibiotic efficacy, help establish antibiotic breakpoints and even inform infection control and prevention practices.
The bioprinter pilot program is a remarkable step forward in the fight against antibiotic resistance. It is important to realize though that this crisis still requires comprehensive long-term intervention including discovery of new antibiotics, development of new diagnostics, and an unequivocal commitment to antibiotic stewardship in healthcare and beyond. In the short term, though, a printer might just be exactly what the doctor ordered.