Biochip will help first responders track viral outbreaks in real time

Biomedical engineers at Brown University and Memorial Hospital in Rhode Island have developed a biochip that can detect the presence of influenza and other viruses. The breakthrough will allow emergency workers to be equipped with flu-detection kits, so they can track the spread of viruses in real-time. The device could dramatically improve the way outbreaks are both detected and contained.

During a viral outbreak, every second counts. The longer it takes to localize and contain a virus, the greater chance it has of going completely pandemic. Up until now, attempts to administer tests at the source of the outbreak have been costly, unwieldy, and unreliable. But a new device called SMART may change all that.

A research team led by Anubhav Tripathi has developed a low-cost and simple device that can detect the presence of influenza by zeroing in on a specific RNA sequence and then using tiny magnets in a tube to separate the flu-ridden sequence from the rest of the RNA strand. As a result, they have created a reliable, fast prototype of a flu-detection test that could be carried in a standard first-aid kit and used as easily as an iPhone.

Called SMART, which stands for "A Simple Method for Amplifying RNA Targets," the device consists of a series of tubes (yes, really), with bulbs on the ends of each, etched like channels into the biochip. It has a detector which uses a DNA probe with base letters that can match the code in a targeted sequence. What this means is that the probe will latch on to the specific RNA strand that it has been configured for, thus identifying it.

The chips themselves are less than two inches across and can fit four different channels (to detect multiple viral strains). It is thought that the biochips will eventually be manufactured commercially and made so that more channels can be etched on each. Looking ahead, the team is hoping to develop a similar system for biohazard detection.

Via KurzweilAI. Flu virus image via Shutterstock/Mopic.