Humans aren’t the only organisms with a sweet tooth, bacteria love sweets too. With a new medical imaging technique developed by pediatrician Alvaro Ordonez and a team of researchers, PET scans can capture images of infection-causing bacteria in the human body with the help of sorbitol, a sugar-free sweetener.

Researchers took a radioactive tracer and added it to sorbitol molecules, which were then injected into patients with infections. The bacteria causing the infections consumed the sorbitol along with the attached radioactive tracer, which in turn lit up the infections in PET scan images like this one. The scans helped researchers identify the existence and location of infections, often before it would show up in other medical tests.

“Knowing quickly which organism is causing the problem can enable clinicians to target the antibiotic that can best combat that bacteria, and that is where our new imaging system could make a difference,” says Ordonez.

This new clinical technique can also help identify antibiotic resistant bacteria. PET scans can be conducted to create a targeted treatment plan should the bacteria be resistant.

Caption written by Haley Wasserman, Science Writing Intern for the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences.

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