Making viruses vibrate to signal their whereabouts

A team of Cambridge scientists have invented a new method that could revolutionise the way scientists detect viruses.

It works by ‘vibrating’ viruses and listening to the sound they make as they break away from a surface.

The secret is said to lay in tiny quartz crystals less than 1 cm in diameter and 1 mm thick. An antibody is used to bind the virus to the surface of the quartz and the crystal is then made to vibrate electrically.

As the virus breaks off the crystal, it makes a distinctive noise, which has been likened to the sound of a twig snapping.

The crystal is then used as a sensitive microphone to convert the sound back into an electrical signal that detects the virus.

The method was developed in the UK’s University of Cambridge Department of Chemistry by a team including Victor Ostanin, David Klenerman, Matthew Cooper, Tony Minson, Alexander Slepstov, Fedor Dultsev, Lianne Cabuche and Chris Abell.

‘The method is inexpensive, versatile and the results are obtained much more quickly than conventional techniques,’ explained Dr. Matthew Cooper. ‘We get good results in the lab, but we have a lot of work to do before we can deal with real samples in hospitals and on farms, for instance.’

‘In our tests, we used a herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores, and which is a useful model for more life-threatening viruses such as HIV and Hepatitis B,’ said Dr Cooper. ‘The whole process is completed in under two hours, and we hope will eventually be able to eliminate anxious waiting periods for patients being diagnosed.’

A company called Akubio has been formed to commercialise the technology, using funds raised from the University of Cambridge Challenge Fund, the University of Cambridge, and the life sciences venture capital company, Abingworth Management.

The aim is to make the instrument smaller and to extend the range of samples that can be detected to include bacteria, proteins and DNA.