Avian alert

Low-cost, disposable bio-sensors designed to allow on-the-spot detection of outbreaks of bird flu are being developed by engineers in Cambridge.


The BiMAT bio-sensor technology would allow doctors or vets to instantly analyse small amounts of blood from humans, animals or birds, removing the need for samples to be sent to a laboratory for analysis, claimed researchers working on the project.


Early detection of bird flu is seen as vital for effectively containing outbreaks through measures such as culls or quarantine, especially in remote locations. BiMAT is under development at The Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE) at Cambridge University.


Also involved is US nanotechnology specialist Advance Nanotech, an investor in the project. The New York-based company told The Engineer this week that development of BiMAT would be made a priority, given the current climate of concern over avian flu and its now notorious H5N1 variant, which can be fatal in humans. The government’s medical advisers have warned that even if the current feared epidemic fails to materialise, one is inevitable soon.


Stephanie Interbartolo, Advance Nanotech’s senior vice-president, said: ‘The BiMAT detector technology is what we’re trying to get to market quickly. Our first step is creating a usable BiMAT detector, because there is an urgent need for it.’


The sensors are designed to be cheap and disposable, and could be used to look for traces of specified diseases using very small volumes of blood. They incorporate thin film polysilicon transistors deposited on lightweight inexpensive substrates. Both the transistors and the sensor mechanism are patented by CAPE.


The project’s investors hope that a usable prototype of the BiMAT technology for detecting bird flu could be ready by as early as next summer. Advance Nanotech’s Dr Michael Helmus said: ‘This lead time is largely attributed to the fact that we are taking a technology from the prototype stage to a commercial product. However, we do now have agreements with manufacturing companies in place that will make this rapid transition possible.’


There are also plans to potentially combine BiMAT sensors with a second technology that would allow the tagging and tracking of poultry or other at-risk bird populations.


Advance Nanotech also invests in Singular ID, a company spun out from Singapore’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, which has developed anti-counterfeiting technology that uses nanoscopic ‘fingerprints’ to prevent fraud. The fingerprints are invisible to the human eye and consist of nanoscale magnetic objects embedded in a non-magnetic material which can be scanned by a reader.


According to Singular ID’s chief executive Adrian Burden, the unique signal produced from each fingerprint is impossible to reproduce. He believes that his company’s technology, although designed for anti-fraud, could be useful in preventing a pandemic if used in conjunction with BiMAT.


‘Although our technology was not designed with this kind of application in mind, there are a number of ways in which it could be used to help,’ claimed Burden.


For example, once the BiMAT sensors have made a positive diagnosis of the disease in an animal, the infrastructure that Singular ID uses to track products could be used to collate the data from the tests in a central database quickly and accurately via the mobile phone network.


Nanoscale magnetic tagging could also indicate which flocks have been tested and are free of disease.


Burden said he will travel to the UK within the next month to discuss with researchers at CAPE and Advance Nanotech how the two different technologies can be used in tandem, and how they can get a product out as quickly as possible.


‘It’s still early days and no contracts have been signed yet,’ said Burden. ‘But I think it is something that needs to come together quickly as a bird flu pandemic could be here at any time, meaning the sooner something is in place the better.’