Taking the strain

Researchers in the UK and North America tell The Engineer about the technologies they are developing to help stop the spread of deadly swine flu.

The worldwide spread of swine flu is putting increased pressure on biomedical engineers to develop faster testing mechanisms for the disease.

The virus, known officially as H1N1, is currently detected through intense laboratory evaluations that take days to confirm or refute a suspected case.

Biotech companies in Britain and the US have recently made announcements that they are working on faster detection technology.

Within a month, InDevR, a company based in Colorado, hopes to roll out thousands of devices that could help hospitals detect swine flu in hours.

Its technology, called FluChip, which is based on DNA microarrays, demonstrated through past research an ability to distinguish between common human flu viruses and the H1N1 virus that originated from pigs.

Kathy Rowlen, chief executive of InDevR, said that the company still needs to test its technology with genetic material from the current strain of H1N1.

The source of the material, she added, will be either the US government’s Center for Disease Control or Health and Human Services (HHS), which funded the research behind InDevR’s detection technology.

‘We don’t want to draw conclusions that it will work because we have to test it first, and we hope that’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks,’ said Rowlen. ‘With a little help from HHS we could deliver thousands of chips within a month.’

The FluChip rapidly detects viruses by identifying genetic signatures. A chip consists of an array of microscopic spots – deposited by a robot – on a flat surface. The rows of spots, arranged in threes, each contain short strands of DNA designed to capture a specific genetic sequence from a sample.

If the microarray is soaked in the bodily fluid of an infected individual, RNA fragments from the sample will bind to specific DNA segments on the microarray.

The captured RNA will then be labelled with another complementary sequence that contains a fluorescent dye. When the chip is inserted into a laser scanner it will light up to indicate that the virus is present.

The immediate goal for biotech companies is to develop a test that can give results within hours, but companies are already looking to possible future outbreaks of new viruses and working on testing mechanisms that could reduce that time further.

Orla Protein Technologies, based in Newcastle upon Tyne, believes that within a few years time it will have developed a rapid diagnostic biosensor device that could test for viruses such as swine flu in minutes.

Dale Athey, chief executive, said the mobile phone-sized device could detect antibodies from a virus using an individual’s nasal or throat swab. The virus’ antibodies would bind to special biological markers in the device and transfer to a surface acoustic wave sensor for detection.

Athey explained the device would be electronic and wirelessly connected so it could record and send results to local hospitals and health officials. This means that the device could be used at points where it is needed most, such as airports.

If a person tested positive for an infectious disease, he said, they could be stopped from boarding the aeroplane and spreading the virus to another country.

Athey added that the testing device would also incorporate GPS so the progression of the disease could be more easily mapped.

Orla Protein Technologies is currently working with wireless equipment and electronics manufacturer Japan Radio Corporation through the research and development stage of its electronic testing device.

Athey said the group hopes to have working prototypes of the device next year that could be used in clinical testing and trials. ‘We hope to also be in discussion with partners on how to take this product to market,’ he added.

Siobhan Wagner