Researchers have found a quick and cheap way to test for viruses using nanotechnology, according to a report in a journal published Thursday.
The 60-second test cuts "days to weeks"off the wait for lab results from a doctor's office, said lead author Ralph Tripp, a vaccine development expert atthe University of Georgia.
"You could actually apply it to a person walking off a plane and know if they're infected," he said in a release.
The diagnostic test could identify viruses as diverse as influenza, HIV and respiratory syncytial virus, a common cause of bronchitis in infants and colds in adults.
"What we've developed is the next generation of diagnostic testing," he said, even though the technique has only been tested in the lab. The results were published Thursday in Nano Letters.
The next step is studies on real samples of blood or other biological samples, but the researchers have already started to develop a business based on the process.
Amplify weak signal
The actual diagnostic technique, called surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy, is well known. It measures the change in frequency of a near-infrared laser as it rebounds from viral DNA or RNA. The change is as distinct as a fingerprint.
But the technique has a major drawback as a diagnostic tool. The signal produced is very weak.
That's where nanotechnology— manipulating of tiny particles such as atoms and molecules on the scale of a nanometre, or one-billionth of a metre — made a difference.
UGA physics professor Yiping Zhao and UGA chemistry professor Richard Dluhy found a way to amply the signal by using rows of nanorods, 10,000 times finer than a human hair, on the glass slides that hold samples.
"The enhancement factors are extraordinary," Dluhy said, and the scientists' patented method is "very easy to implement, it's very cheap and it's very reproducible."
It takes a long time to identify a virus today because tests measure theantibodies peopleproduce in response to an infection. The tests are error prone, so they must often be confirmed by a second test known as polymerase chain reaction, which detects the virus itself by copying it many times.
But that testcan take up to two weeks, too long when health authorities need to know quickly if a virus is racing through a population, Tripp said.
"For some respiratory viruses, you've either cleared the infection at that point or succumbed to the infection," he said.
The technique has the potential to detect a single virus particle, and can identify virus subtypes and viruses with mutations. Thatmakes it valuable as a diagnostic tool anda useful way for epidemiologists to track where viruses originate and how they mutate as they move through populations.