Avian Breakthough in Sight

GLOBAL - Groundbreaking research to enable rapid diagnosis of bird flu is being developed with the help of Nottingham Trent University.
calendar icon 15 August 2008
clock icon 4 minute read

Groundbreaking research to enable rapid diagnosis of bird flu - including the deadly H5N1 strain which can be fatal if passed on to humans - is being developed with the help of Nottingham Trent University, reports Medical News. Experts from the university's School of Science and Technology are playing a key role in a European project to create portable machines capable of identifying the disease instantly, potentially saving the lives of countless humans and animals.

The Portfastflu project, being made possible with €3million of EU funding, would cut the current diagnosis time from up to a week to just two hours. A swab containing saliva (humans) or tissue sample (animals) would be passed through the machine which would perform the molecular recognition of the virus strains, thus identifying the presence of influenza and even the type or subtype of strain, eliminating the need for samples to be sent to a testing laboratory.

The technology, which would be able to identify both human and animal influenza, would prove to be a vital tool in the fight against bird flu, making it possible to set up exclusion zones and cull infected birds much faster, before infection spreads. This preventative measure is seen as absolutely crucial as there is still no definitive vaccine to treat the virus.

Tens of millions of birds have died or been slaughtered as a result of bird flu, or avian influenza, in recent years. The disease - which is transmitted among birds and from birds to other animals through ingestion and inhalation - has spread across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Although the H5N1 strain of the virus does not pass easily from birds to humans, it has so far claimed 243 lives from 385 confirmed cases.

Humans typically catch the virus by coming into contact with sick birds, but if a strain gained the ability to pass easily between humans the results could be catastrophic - with some experts predicting anything between two million and fifty million deaths worldwide.

The new tool would allow fast, on-the-spot screening of sick persons, distinguishing those carrying deadly strains from those subject to lesser flu variations, hence not requiring immediate total isolation.

The research team - which consists of universities, research organisations and businesses, and is being led by the French company Genewave - is developing two machines, one briefcase-sized for use by veterinary surgeons or doctors out in the field, and a larger, table-top one for GPs and hospitals.

Dr Alan McNally, an expert in molecular biology at Nottingham Trent University, and a former avian flu researcher for the Government, said: "At present influenza immunity relates only to specific strains and simply does not exist in the event of a new pandemic outbreak. The ongoing outbreaks and spread of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus in poultry and wild birds have led to fears that a subtype that is transmissible from human to human could emerge. Therefore the ability to detect and type influenza virus immediately is essential in setting up appropriate controls as quickly as possible to minimise the spread of any potential pandemic virus."

Avian influenza occurs quickly with affected birds typically showing swelling of the head, blue discolouration of the neck and throat, dullness, a loss of appetite, respiratory distress, diarrhoea and a drop in egg production. Partners in the Portfastflu research project include: Nottingham Trent University (UK) Genewave (Co-ordinator, France) Biosensia (Ireland) Cirad (France) VIB (Belgium) Ikerlan (Spain) Gaiker (Spain) Basque Foundation for Health Innovation and Research (Spain).

Further Reading

- You can visit the Avian Flu page by clicking here.
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