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Nanotechnology Sensors Detecting Swine Flu in Public Places

Canadian researchers are testing a new device that may soon detect flu viruses circulating at malls or airports and warn people about them. The sensor is designed to detect a specific strain of flu virus, such as the new strain of swine flu, or influenza A (H1N1), as well as measure its concentration in the air. It is being developed by physicist Luc Beaulieu and his team at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L.

Beaulieu suggested the sensor could be installed in public places where the virus is easily spread, such as office buildings, hospitals, schools or even airplanes. If it detects high concentrations of a virus on a plane, authorities might decide to turn the aircraft around, Beaulieu said. "Or to land it and then quarantine passengers," he said. "So that's the ultimate goal, to make something people can use."

The device has already detected influenza viruses in some lab tests, but is currently entering a more rigorous trial phase that is expected to take about a year. The tests are very sensitive, and Beaulieu wears four sets of protective gloves when working with the sensor to ensure he doesn't contaminate it. The sensor itself consists of tiny silicon strips, each as thin as a human hair. The strips, which are called cantilevers because they are anchored on only one side, like a diving board, are mounted and lined up on a chip no bigger than a piece of confetti. Virus makes cantilever bend.

The antibodies are supplied by virologist Ken Hirasawa. Isolating antibodies for a new flu strain could take several months.The antibodies are supplied by virologist Ken Hirasawa. Isolating antibodies for a new flu strain could take several months. (CBC)Each cantilever is coated with protein antibodies, and each antibody is designed to trap a specific strain of influenza. When the right virus sticks to its antibody, the cantilever bends. A laser pointed at the cantilever detects the bending and triggers an alarm. The antibodies are supplied by Memorial University virologist Ken Hirasawa, who said he can prepare antibodies to trap any known virus. However, isolating the antibodies for a new strain could take months. If antibodies are available, the sensor can be easily rejigged to detect a different viral strain, Beaulieu said. "If you already have these chips with hundreds of cantilevers, then it would be just a question of changing the chip with the new antibodies."

Run time: 2.51 mins

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