Researchers have created a new test that uses sugar and gold nanoparticles to detect the influenza virus within 30 minutes, and it can even distinguish between human and avian strains. This is according to a study published in the journal Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry.

The research team, led by Prof. Robert Field of the John Innes Centre and Prof. David Russell of the University of East Anglia in the UK, says the new flu test is based on previous work that uses “optically-based molecular recognition systems.”

Prof. Field explains that 90% of infections use carbohydrate recognition to bind with targets in the human body. From this process, the research team has already created a carbohydrate-based sensor that has the ability to detect cholera in contaminated water.

“The sensor is a suspension of sugars tagged with inexpensive gold nanoparticles,” says Prof. Field.

“If cholera is present, it will attach to the sugar, pulling the particles closer together. This creates a change in the photophysics of the suspension, resulting in a color change that is visible to the naked eye.”

The investigators have used the same principles to create a new test for the detection of influenza. When the flu virus is detected, the red color of the gold solution will change color.

Results of the study revealed that the test is able to detect the human influenza virus X31 (H3N2) within 30 minutes, and it was also able to differentiate between human and avian influenza flu strains.

Prof. Field explains:

We have found that different types of flu virus have different sugar binding capabilities, so it is therefore possible to use a color change, not only to identify the presence and absence of the virus, but also to distinguish between them.”

Detailing exactly how the test can differentiate between human and avian flu strains, the researchers explain that sugar chains containing a molecule called sialic acid are present on the surface of human cells.

Both human and avian flu have receptors for sialic acid, but they bind to different sugar chains. Because of this, the test is able to tell the difference between the two.

The researchers say the test is much faster than current detection methods, and it is a low-technology approach that can be used with minimal training.

“Preventing a new influenza pandemic requires both vaccination and antiviral drugs administered within 48 hours of the infection,” says Prof. Russell.

Current methods of detection require isolation and culture of the virus and may take several hours or even days to get the results, which can be too long for the patient. It is clear that a rapid, diagnostic test that is able to discriminate between the different strains of virus is essential.”

The researchers say they have patented the testing method and are now in the process of searching for a diagnostics company that will help bring the test to the market.

They note that there is also potential to apply this approach to the detection of other viruses. Prof. Russell told Medical News Today:

“Research-wise, carbohydrate recognition is associated with many infectious diseases. There is scope to adopt a similar glyconanoparticle approach for the detection for many other viruses, bacteria and toxic agents, in both a biomedical and forensic setting.”

He continued: “The key challenge that we now face is to turn these basic science studies into a functional device for roll out to the user community.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that prompt treatment with antiviral drugs could improve the chances of survival for children who are critically ill with flu.