Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington and the State University of New York have created a breathalyzer-like device to test for the flu, a breakthrough that could help prevent influenza outbreaks and improve patient care worldwide.
Crucial to controlling the spread of infections is accurate and timely diagnosis, but as anyone who’s been to see a doctor about the flu knows, either the call is made based on the symptoms you’re presenting right there in the doctor’s office or a swab is taken and sent away to a lab for analysis. The first approach is oftentimes none too reassuring as “flu-like symptoms” can present for a wide range of illnesses, while the second is not too helpful for health care providers who are hoping to contain the virus’s spread through speedy identification of positive cases.
What would help would be an on-the-spot, easy-to-use detection device that could work in a clinic setting (and not just in a lab) but with the high degree of certainty that health professionals (along with flu patients like you and me) would require.
Enter the flu virus breath monitor —a hand-held device that uses nanosensors to detect minute concentrations of certain gases, called biomarkers, in the breath.
“Before we applied nanotechnology to create this device, the only way to detect biomarkers in a person’s breath was through very expensive, highly-technical equipment in a lab, operated by skilled personnel,” says Pelagia-Irene Gouma, lead scientist at the Institute for Predictive Performance Measurement at the UTA Research Institute, and co-author of the new study. “Now, this technology could be used by ordinary people to quickly and accurately diagnose illness.”
The new technology uses nanosensors to detect quantities of three gases in the breath — isoprene, ammonia and nitric oxide — all three of which research has shown are generated in the alveoli of the lungs and the lining of the airway when the body is fighting the influenza virus. The study’s researchers state that correct reading of these biomarkers can deliver accurate diagnoses without the need of costly and time-consuming lab work, all thanks to recent advances in nanotechnology.
“I think that technology like this is going to revolutionize personalized diagnostics,” says Gouma. “This will allow people to be proactive and catch illnesses early, and the technology can easily be used to detect other diseases, such as Ebola virus disease, simply by changing the sensors.”
Flu season is now well under way across Canada, with Health Canada reporting that outbreaks reached their peak during the final week of December. The Public Health Influenza Report identified 71 laboratory-confirmed outbreaks between December 18 and 31, mostly due to the H3N2 strain of influenza. The predominant virus type this year, H3N2 is having its impact most strongly on the elderly, as the majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been among adults aged 65 year and older. Public Health Canada reports that as of the third week of January, the virus appeared to be on the wane, with a total of 2,667 positive influenza detections reported in week three, a decrease from the previous week, and 417 hospitalizations in comparison to 467 the week before.
The new research is published in the journal Sensors.