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Q & A with Robert Slinger

Profile – Dr. Bob Slinger

What is the focus of your research?
It’s infectious disease molecular diagnostics. The infectious disease part has been in the news a lot – like the pandemic flu, the Maple Leaf Foods outbreak a few years ago and the Walkerton E. coli before that. I’m developing tests to help diagnose all the major infectious diseases that are caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites. We take a sample from a patient and test it on a panel for all the infections that could be causing the person’s illness.

Why is this important?
Panel testing eliminates the guesswork in diagnosing infectious disease up to 90% of the time, and we can get the test results in a relatively short period of time. In fact, we’re getting to the point in the lab where we can confidently pinpoint an infectious disease in about one hour. This means we can come back quickly after the testing and say, “Okay, this is what you’ve got,” and tell the physician that. The sooner a disease is diagnosed, the sooner appropriate treatment can begin. And overall, the savings are huge in cost, personnel and time – not to mention providing valuable information for the patient and their family.

Do you have any projects currently on the go using panel testing?
We’re doing a study at the CHEO Emergency Department that we’re calling the “Dripper Study,” as it has to do with kids with drippy noses. All of the kids who come in the door are seen by a nurse, before they’re seen by a physician, to take a sample from their nose or throat – with the consent of the parents, of course. Then we take the sample to the research lab right away, run the test for one patient at a time so that we can get the testing done for 22 things all at once, and then get the results back to Emergency within an hour.

What else is happening with your research?
So far our big focus has been (1) respiratory infections; and (2) diarrhea and food-borne illnesses. We have a project grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to develop a test for food- and water-borne infectious diseases in northern communities. An arrangement has been set up with Nunavut: they’ve been sending stool samples to our lab and we’re testing them to see what infectious agents appear over and over again.

The CHEO Research Institute’s vision is “Discoveries today for healthier kids tomorrow.” Is there a transferable lesson in what you do?
What sets us apart is that in every test we can look for many different types of infectious agents, including bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites. Eventually, I think panel-type amplification will become a first line medical test to quickly and effectively test for multiple diseases – and the CHEO Research Institute will be at the forefront of this shift in health care.

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