Scientists have developed a novel hand-held device that can quickly capture and identify various strains of virus. Virologists estimate that 1.67 million unknown viruses are in animals, a number of which can be transmitted to humans, according to the study published in the journal PNAS. Known viruses, such as H5N1, Zika and Ebola have caused widespread illness and death.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that early detection can halt virus spread by enabling rapid deployment of countermeasures. “We have developed a fast and inexpensive handheld device that can capture viruses based on size,” said Mauricio Terrones, a professor at Penn State and New York University (NYU) in the US.
“Our device uses arrays of nanotubes engineered to be comparable in size to a wide range of viruses. We then use Raman spectroscopy to identify the viruses based on their individual vibration,” Terrones said.
This device, called a VIRRION, has a wide range of possible uses, the researchers said. For example, early detection of a virus in the field can save farmers an entire crop. Early detection of a virus in livestock can also save a herd from illness, they said.
According to the researchers, humans also will benefit by the detection of viruses in minutes rather than in days with current methods. Because of its size and low cost, such a device would be useful in every doctor’s office as well as in remote locations when disease outbreaks occur, they said.
“Most current techniques require large and expensive pieces of equipment,” Terrones said. “The VIRRION is a few centimetres across. We add gold nanoparticles to enhance the Raman signal so that we are able to detect the virus molecule in very low concentrations. We then use machine learning techniques to create a library of virus types,” he said.
The VIRRION enables the rapid enrichment of virus particles from any type of sample — environmental or clinical — which jump-starts viral characterisation, said Professor Elodie Ghedin, a virologist at NYU. Researchers said this has applications in virus emergence, virus discovery and in diagnosis.
“Eventually, we hope to use this device for the capture and sequencing of single virions, giving us a much better handle on the evolution of the virus in real time,” Ghedin said.