Sepsis kills thousands every year. And B.C. scientists are leading the fight to treat it

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B.C. scientists lead new research into sepsis
WATCH: B.C. researchers are leading a new offensive against one of the leading causes of death in Canada. Aaron McArthur reports on new research aimed at finding new ways to treat and diagnose sepsis – Sep 13, 2017

B.C. researchers are leading an new offensive against sepsis, one of the leading causes of death in Canada.

Sepsis is a condition that’s caused by an “overwhelming immune response to an infection,” according to Statistics Canada. That can lead to “widespread inflammation, swelling and blood clotting,” as well as organ damage.

When not treated quickly, it can result in organ failure and death.

It kills thousands of people every year; one in 18 deaths in Canada involved sepsis in 2011, according to StatsCan.

Coverage of sepsis on

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One in three people diagnosed with sepsis dies from the condition within a month, said Jim Russell of St. Paul’s Hospital’s Centre for Heart Lung Innovation.

Russell is one of a number of researchers who has helped make Vancouver a global centre in the fight against sepsis with two projects that could revolutionize the way the condition is treated and diagnosed.

Since sepsis is the body’s overreaction to an infection, it is difficult to diagnose in its early stages. By the time doctors know what it is, it can be too late.

Sepset Biosciences has developed a new genetic-based test they believe can lead to faster diagnoses and better outcomes.

“For every hour that you delay diagnosis you have an eight per cent higher chance of dying,” Jon Jafari of Sepset Biosciences said. “We’re estimating that up to 80 per cent of patients can be saved.”

While new testing can identify sepsis more quickly, treatment for the life-threatening condition hasn’t changed much in a half-century.

READ MORE: What you need to know about sepsis, septic shock and stem cells

Researchers at St. Paul’s Hospital have developed a potential game-changer. Lab trials have shown sepsis can be attacked using medication normally designed to treat people with high cholesterol.

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“We were the first in the world to find that the same pathway that takes cholesterol out of our body also takes these toxins from the bacteria out of the body,” Russell said.

While treatment is improving, the number of people affected by the disease continues to grow.

“Few people know that more patients die of sepsis than die of heart attacks and even fewer people know that genetic makeup is more important in sepsis than in heart attacks,” Russell said.

“If one of your parents died of a heart attack, you yourself have double the chance of dying of a heart attack. But if one of your parents died of sepsis or a severe infection you yourself have a five-fold increased risk of dying of a severe infection.”

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