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New device IDs flu strains rapidly
Scripps Howard News Service


November 17, 2005

BOULDER, Colo. - University of Colorado researchers have developed a tool that can identify flu strains within hours, rather than several days, and they are sharing it with the world in an effort to minimize deaths during a pandemic.

"We decided to make the announcement to make it available as widely as possible," said Kathy Rowlen, co-principal investigator for Flu Chip.

Tests on the new technology last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta showed that the Flu Chip can determine the genetic makeup of types and subtypes of the flu virus in less than 12 hours.

In practice, it means that if someone has a mutated version of the avian flu that can easily pass from human to human, health officials can identify it fast and move quickly to contain an outbreak, Rowlen said.



Scientists first suspected that avian flu had reached the birds of Croatia several weeks ago, but it was four days later before they could confirm it, Rowlen added.

"That's way too long. We have to make it much faster than that, so we can take action such as quarantining."

Basically, the Flu Chip works like this: The university researchers shine a laser on RNA taken from a saliva or blood sample to see if flu is present, and if so, what particular strain.

Unique changes in the color of the laser light, sparked by a microarray of a special molecule, reveal the genetic footprints of the virus.

The basic technology is widely available, but laboratories around the world will need the university's gene sequences for the RNA and DNA, said graduate student James Smagala. "We got it cleared with CU that we can release that intellectual property."

Rowlen hopes it will be used around the globe within a year.

Rowlen and graduate student Michael Townsend have been interested in microarray technology for several years. It can screen for many types of pathogens at the same time. They applied it to influenza because there are so many different strains _ some dangerous, some relatively harmless.

Rowlen is also working with university chemistry professor Robert Kuchta, four postdoctoral students, two graduate students and an undergraduate.

The Flu Chip has detected the avian flu H5N1 strain in samples collected by the CDC and also can detect the two strains that most likely will hit Americans this winter, H3N2 and H1N1, she said.

Crucially, the Flu Chip likely can pick up mutations in H5N1 that could indicate it's getting better at human-to-human transmission, Kuchta said.

Equally important, the Flu Chip should be able to identify a year ahead of time the strains most likely to infect people the following flu season, CU researchers said.

The technology was developed with a $2 million, five-year grant to the University of Colorado from the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The chip currently is more than 90 percent accurate, and the number of false positives is dwindling steadily, Rowlen said. It will be tested again next month at CDC's Atlanta headquarters, side by side with standard flu-virus culturing methods, for accuracy and speed.


Contact Bill Scanlon of the Rocky Mountain News
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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