Breath Test May Soon Be Able to Detect Flu Virus in Minutes

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New flu testing technology may soon make diagnosing the virus as easy as breathing into an air tube.

Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden are developing an innovative flu test that’s as easy to operate as a breathalyzer and can determine an infection within minutes.

Credit: KTH

But the ease of use belies some serious technology — the biosensor contains “tens of thousands of wells, each smaller than the size of a single red blood cell.” Those wells capture virus particles from a patient’s exhaled breath and can analyze them far more rapidly than current nasal-swabbing techniques, which can take hours or even days.

The new test hinges on the collaboration of two pieces of technology — the ability to collect virus particles from a patient’s breath and the cutting-edge method of identifying the nuclear proteins of a flu virus.

“Now we have proven that the two crucial technologies work, independently from one another,” said researcher Laila Ladhani, a Ph.D. student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

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Combining the high-tech elements into one device gives the new test a significant advantage over current detection methods, which could benefit patients during a normal flu season — but would be a tremendous benefit during a flu scare or epidemic.

“Compared to other current technologies, our approach has the advantage to enable easy integration with lab-on-chip sensing technologies for point-of-care applications. Altogether, our results are promising towards ‘effective prevention and control strategies’ during epidemics,” report the study authors in PLOS One.

A Closer Look at the Technology

While the new test is perhaps a few years away from hitting the market, the impressive technology may soon arm the medical community with a significant new tool in fighting infectious disease.

Laila Ladhani, one of the researchers behind the device, is pictured here with the virus detector. Credit: KTH

After a patient breathes into the device, “highly-charged needles inside the bottle ionize the micro-sized droplets of water that carry the virus in the breath, and these are then attracted to an electrically-grounded droplet of liquid in the bottom of the chamber,” report the study authors.

After that, “the next step is to break open the virus cell’s walls, using the common lab process of lysis, and then hunt down the nuclear proteins of the virus.” The search-and-hunt operation occurs on an infinitesimal scale, which adds to the challenge of the new application.

“This kind of test will enable doctors to treat severely threatened patients the right way, and it will be valuable for use in clinical research,” study author Wouter van der Wijngaart says. “It’s harder than finding a needle in a haystack, but it can be done.”

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After locating the nuclear proteins, the testing device dowses them in a fluid that contains “magnetic antibody-coated beads” that bind to the proteins. Then it uses a magnet to differentiate the proteins and a camera to assess them.

“A device with such a performance would reduce sampling times dramatically, from a few hours with current sampling methods down to a couple of minutes,” report the researchers.

The researchers are already moving ahead with further testing and anticipate conducting field testing to continue to improve “our understanding of the natural state of airborne viruses, the viral load in various settings.”

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.