TSB project funds test device for farm-based diseases

A device that could help contain outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu has won funding under a £12m government project aimed at improving infection diagnosis.

The portable equipment for quickly testing a subject for disease will communicate results to a central unit that will direct the outbreak response.

By using an external scanning system rather than requiring users to insert samples into it, the device can be easily disinfected in the field for repeat use.

The device being developed under a Technology Strategy Board (TSB) programme is primarily designed for combating farm-based diseases such as foot and mouth and avian flu, but could also be useful during outbreaks of human infections such as MRSA.

‘One of the issues with [existing devices] being used in an outbreak is that you get the result there and then, but there’s no way of securing the data and reporting it back,’ said Christopher Danks, chief executive officer of the firm behind the design, Forsite Diagnostics.

‘If someone made a misinterpretation they could make the wrong decision, so there needed to be a method to monitor what the results were, linked to an incident unit that can give authorisation on what the next action should be.’

Existing readers typically require users to insert organic samples from the subject on disposable cassettes. To make the device reusable in an outbreak situation, Foresite needed to develop an entirely water- and dustproof machine that could be submerged in disinfectant, which meant the sample had to be analysed externally.

‘You can’t have any openings,’ said Danks. ‘You need a box that contains all the important components such as GPS, and barcode and RFID [radio frequency identification] scanners that mean you can get data in and out of a machine that is almost button-free.’

The device will be able to detect a variety of different infections, making it useful for outbreaks of human diseases, as well as animal ones. By providing a fast verdict on whether an area such as a farm is subject to an outbreak and needs to be quarantined, it could help stop the spread of the disease.

Forsite is three months into a year-long programme that aims to produce five prototype scanners for testing by government agencies. The devices will be made by UK contractor Nemphlar Bioscience.

Danks said that the product could be quickly manufactured once approved and Forsite was considering licensing the technology, but the sample cassettes also needed development.

The project will cost around £115,000, of which around 75 per cent will come from the TSB, supported by the Department of Health and the EPSRC.

The TSB is funding 36 research programmes in this area − 27 led by small and medium enterprises (SMEs) − with particular focus on point-of-care diagnosis for human diseases. Eight companies will share £9.4m, while another 28 feasibility studies and fast-track projects will receive £2.9m.

TSB chief executive Iain Gray said: ‘The purpose of these investments is to support the development and uptake of diagnostic devices that are both clinically useful and commercially viable.’