Health and wellness

Breakthrough by Hong Kong students could provide a cheap and easy way for people to tell if they have the flu

  • Team of 12 undergraduates from Chinese University have produced a device that can detect the flu and return results within half an hour
  • The device costs less than HK$80 and won a gold medal at the iGEM 2018 Giant Jamboree in Boston
PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 10:17am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 10:17am

A small, portable self-testing tool that can detect flu viruses in just 30 minutes has been developed by a dozen Hong Kong university students, potentially providing the public with a cheap and easy way to tell the difference between the common cold and flu.

The device, a black box, developed by a team of 12 undergraduate students from Chinese University (CUHK), can distinguish the type of a virus by detecting its RNA target sequence, and the result is delivered within 30 minutes.

The detector device costs less than HK$80 (US$10) and each test costs about HK$8, making it affordable for the general public, said team leader Jessica Liu Yin-yin, who is a Year 3 student in mathematics and information engineering.

The invention has recently won a gold medal at the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) 2018 Giant Jamboree in Boston, which was held from October 24 to 29.

A total of 365 teams from all over the world took part in this year’s competition, with 114 of them awarded gold medals.

“Our lab idea was to develop a tool that will emit a fluorescent light once the virus is detected,” said Liu.

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For the general public, it’s very expensive to detect the flu signal using some traditional machines
Jessica Liu, member of CUHK team

“For the general public, it’s very expensive to detect the flu signal using some traditional machines.”

Influenza, commonly known as flu, is a transmissible disease that can be potentially fatal to the elderly, to children, and people with underlying illnesses.

Even if doctors diagnose the flu, it usually takes a day or more for a laboratory test to confirm the subtype of the virus, and very often the prime opportunity for taking medicine or conducting epidemic control is missed, the team said.

To study the public need for the flu test, the team distributed questionnaires in local and neighbouring countries during the preliminary stage of the project.

Based on the result, they realised that there is a real need in the market because most the general public cannot differentiate between the symptoms of flu and cold.

“When people have flu-like symptoms, not many of them seek medical help,” said Rebecca Wong Hiu-yan, a Year 4 student majoring in cell and molecular biology.

“We have foreseen the problem that influenza becomes so terrible, it will need a cheap, convenient tool for easy diagnosis. And also, the current medical system cannot cover the diagnosis for everyone.”

Currently, the detector can detect three subtypes of flu viruses, including H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9, with an accuracy of 83 per cent, said Liu, adding that the team is working to expand the range of types and improve the accuracy.

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Apart from flu viruses, the tool can be modified to detect theoretically any RNA target sequence, thus expanding its application to the detection of other viruses, said Chan King-ming, one of the instructors of the team and associate professor of the School of Life Sciences at the university.

“All RNA viruses can potentially be detected by the tool,” he said.

The detector, named “RNA aptamer probe influenza detector”, is based on the switchable light-up RNA aptamer, which undergoes conformational change upon hybridisation with another strand of nucleic acid, leading to an observable fluorescent signal, according to the students.

Liu says the team will next work to develop stronger fluorescent signals and include more flu types to be detected. Human samples will be put into trial next year, she said.