While the most recent influenza season was especially mild, the unpredictable nature of the virus means that more serious strains could circulate in the future and cause a pandemic similar to the H1N1 outbreak of 2009. In an effort to better prepare for if this happens, biomedical engineers at Brown University and Memorial Hospital in Rhode Island have developed a biochip with the potential to track influenza outbreaks in real-time.
A recent Technology Review story describes the device:
The new biochip simplifies genetic amplification–a process in the middle of a series of steps needed to identify the makeup of a sample of blood or tissue.
Currently, to determine what strain of flu a patient has, a sample’s genetic material has to be amplified using either a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which replicates DNA, or a nucleic acid sequence-based amplification, which copies the single-stranded RNA. Both of these processes can take hours to complete and require temperature modulations or need specialized conditions that are impossible to control outside a lab.
In their new assay, [researchers] have developed a way to quickly amplify RNA on a chip the size of a driver’s license without the need for temperature changes. On the biochip, the target stretches of RNA are marked with magnetic beads. Magnets draw these marked strands through a narrow channel, separating them from the unattached strands.
Researchers hope to expand the disease-detecting capabilities of the biochip to include drug-resistant strains of HIV and tuberculosis.