UK scientists have developed a test able to detect bacterial infection from the breath of critically ill patients, and thus accelerate the identification of those at highest risk of developing pneumonia.

A study by researchers from Manchester University, Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust and the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology found that chemically analysing breath specimens can quickly reveal bacterial infection in the lower respiratory tract of ventilated patients in intensive care.

The work is still in its early stages, but those involved believe it could have a huge impact on clinical practice, particularly as current methods of confirming infections involve lab tests of samples from deep in the lungs, which can take days to process.

With help from National Institute for Health Research Invention for Innovation funding over the next three years, the plan now is to develop “a simple non-invasive system” part of the normal connections on ventilator machines, said Stephen Fowler, Clinical Lecturer in Manchester University’s Centre for Respiratory Medicine and Allergy.

Roy Goodacre, a Professor in the School of Chemistry at The University of Manchester, noted that the project “highlights how the application of state-of-the-art chemical analysis and bioinformatics can provide opportunities to deliver patient safety and improve human health on a global scale”.