It is five years ago since the infamous methanol poisonings in the Czech Republic broke out and the first victim died. The final death toll reached 48. A frequent challenge was to diagnose whether someone was a victim of the poisoning before they began to show symptoms. However, the next time around, things could be very different.
Researchers from CEITEC, Masaryk University, have obtained utility model rights to a portable device that can detect methanol poisoning within minutes. The researchers worked on it together with Wartex Praha and it has taken three years to develop. It now depends on the demand as to whether the device will be launched on the market.
Team leader Petr Kubáň first took an interest in testing for methanol – and especially formic acid, which is produced during its breakdown in the human body – in 2012 after the methanol poisoning breakout. Together with doctors from the hospital in Havířov, he developed a new and, most importantly, fast method to detect formic acid in the blood serum using capillary electrophoresis.
“However, this is a complicated method that requires a special device and trained staff. This is why we applied for a grant in 2013 to the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic to develop a portable device that could be used in the field and wouldn't require any special knowledge. Our prototype can determine the volume of both formic acid and methanol in the blood,” says Kubáň, who works at the MU Faculty of Science as well as at the CEITEC MU Institute.
The device uses a reagent whose optical characteristics change in a measurable way after reacting with methanol or formic acid. It is portable and weighs around one kilogram (or 2.2 pounds). “You can insert a sample with the patient's blood plasma into the device and get a result within five minutes,” explains Kubáň. “The display shows the concentration of the measured substances and, at the same time, the LED indicators light up. A green light means that everything is fine, while orange or red lights signal detected poisoning.” The utility model application was facilitated by the MU Technology Transfer Office.
In its first stage, methanol poisoning is not noticed by the victim. The symptoms only start showing after some time, when the tainted alcohol begins to break down into dangerous substances, especially formic acid. In healthy people, the concentration of formic acid in the blood is up to 0.4 millimoles (mM). Concentrations of over four or five mM are signs of serious poisoning. Severe poisoning causes impaired consciousness and vision and may lead to blindness or death.
Altogether, 48 people died during the 2012 methanol poisonings in the Czech Republic, with dozens more suffering permanent damage to their health.