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New flu detection test can be carried in a first aid kit

A novel device out of Brown University could lead to the widespread, real-time tracking of influenza.

Anubhav Tripathi's virus detector is less than two inches across.
Mike Cohea/Brown University

After the H1N1 "swine flu" virus jumped from pigs to human in 2009, more than 18,000 people died and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called it the first global pandemic in more than 40 years.

Today, biomedical engineers out of Brown University and Memorial Hospital in Rhode Island hope that their prototype flu detector biochip will help contain the next major flu outbreak by enabling the quickest, most accurate, and most affordable diagnosis possible.

The team's assay, which they call SMART (short for A Simple Method for Amplifying RNA Targets), consists of a series of tubes with bulbs etched onto the ends. Associate professor of engineering Anubhav Tripathi said in a school news release that the simple, low-cost device could detect not only influenza strains but also HIV and tuberculosis.

"The device allows us to design probes that are both sensitive and specific," Tripathi said.

The SMART detector joins a group of other pathogen detectors that aim to ID bugs via their genetic DNA codes or the RNA "transcripts" the nasties leave in their wake.. But the researchers report today in the Journal of Molecular Diagnostics that their detector is unique because it employs a DNA probe with base letters that match the targeted sequence code exactly.

This means the probe only latches onto the specific RNA strand being assayed. By flooding the sample with probes, all RNA molecules bind to probes, and some probes are left without RNA partners. The device then uses magnetized probes and the movement of the probes through the narrowing channel and bulbs to separate the RNA probe pairs from other biological "debris," enabling clinicians to quickly isolate the targeted influenza strain.

The biochip is less than two inches across and holds up to four tube-and-bulb channels. Tripathi said the chips, which can be manufactured commercially, could be designed so that more channels can be etched onto each. Meanwhile, Tripathi's team is also working on technologies to detect various biohazards.