Kumar Sharma, UT Health, San Antonio

Sepsis: We Need Technologies that More Effectively Treat Patients

By Kumar Sharma, M.D.
Kumar Sharma, UT Health, San Antonio

Each year, more than 250,000 Americans die from the common and deadly condition.

September was Sepsis Awareness Month and if we ever needed an awareness month, this is it.

Every year, about a million people develop sepsis and according to the National Institute of Health, as many as 30% of them die from the disease. It is a non-discriminatory condition that can affect anyone regardless of age, race, income or gender. Former President George H. W. Bush and Mother Theresa both overcame bouts with sepsis, and others including actor Christopher Reeve, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali have died as a result. Sepsis is one of the leading causes of death in the hospital and one of the primary reasons for readmission to the hospital.

As a nephrologist, I know dialysis patients are at particularly high risk. Fifty percent of blood stream infections in dialysis patients are staph infections and they are increasingly caused by bacteria called MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Sepsis is caused when there is a bloodstream infection from the presence of pathogens in the bloodstream. Normally, the body will release immune chemicals to fight the onset of infection. Those chemicals can cause inflammation and vascular trauma; it can lead to organ failure. These bloodstream infections are dangerous and difficult to treat, in part, because the pathogens are increasingly resistant to commonly used antibiotics. With the onset of sepsis and septic shock, the risk to the patient is serious and immediate.

Sepsis is a massive cost burden to the U.S. health system: By 2017, the cost to treat sepsis had risen by more than 20% in just three years, to about $70,000 per patient. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality describes sepsis as one of the most expensive conditions treated in U.S. hospitals. The total dollar impact is well above $20 billion per year. Worse yet, more than 250,000 Americans are dying every year from this disease. To put that in perspective, we’re seeing around 50,000 deaths of women annually from breast cancer, according to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. That is far too many, but juxtaposing the numbers creates context of the size of the sepsis problem. It represents massive human and financial costs, and one of the largest impacts to hospitals and the heath system. We can do better than we’re doing today, and we must.

The routine treatment for a patient that presents symptoms of sepsis involves the administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics and fluids. It is an aggressive condition that requires aggressive treatment, typically in the intensive care unit. As we mark Sepsis Awareness Month this year, there is hope on the horizon. Curiosity, and a thirst to address a solvable problem has sparked innovation that gives me hope as a clinician.

Certainly, the very best way to combat sepsis is prevention and better treatment of bloodstream infections. Last month, the Seraph 100 made by ExThera Medical received CE mark, which would allow the use of the device in the European Union. Seraph 100 is the very first medical device designed specifically to remove pathogens in the bloodstream. Bloodborne pathogens can cause and contribute to the severity of sepsis and we need better tools and treatment. The Europeans now have a tool that I believe could show remarkable improvement in the treatment of sepsis and a dramatic decrease in mortality rates as a result.

What is most exciting to me, is that we have—through creative ingenuity and great scientific rigor—brought forward a solution to a vexing and deadly problem. Approval for the use of the device to treat bloodstream infections in Europe is an exciting step forward. I’m confident that we will see continued progress in treatment here in the United States as well. I know that there is still work ahead, but I am hopeful in knowing that we are making progress to combat sepsis.

About The Author

Kumar Sharma, UT Health, San Antonio