New field test for Hendra virus in horses could deliver result in minutes

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Joanna Kristoffersen: "We’re hoping to develop a device that vets or biosecurity officers can take out to use on site." Photo: University of the Sunshine Coast
Joanna Kristoffersen: “We’re hoping to develop a device that vets or biosecurity officers can take out to use on site.” Photo: University of the Sunshine Coast

The development of a rapid and mobile diagnostic test for Australia’s deadly Hendra virus in horses holds the promise of a result in just 10 minutes.

Hendra is a bat-borne virus that is capable of infecting horses, with deadly consequences. The virus has also proved capable of infecting humans through contact with infected bodily fluids from ill horses. Four of the seven confirmed cases in humans have proved fatal.

The current testing regime requires laboratory testing and can take 36 hours or more before results are known. The new rapid test is said to be as sensitive as the current lab-based test.

A University of the Sunshine Coast researcher, Joanna Kristoffersen, has been working on its development. Her success has seen her nominated for Australia’s Fresh Science competition, which highlights the achievements of early-career researchers.

The new test would not place any additional burden or risk on the veterinarian beyond those already required to be taken in collecting samples to send to a central laboratory.

Work is reportedly under way with Biosecurity Queensland and Queensland Health to commercialise the test.

Kristoffersen says: “Currently, if an owner has a horse that’s ill, a vet will have to attend the property, take samples from the horse, and send them off for testing at a centralised, accredited facility in Brisbane, which can take several days.

“The horse might only have something simple to treat, like colic, but the vet can’t get in there and treat it until the test comes back as negative,” said Kristoffersen, in reference to the policy of some veterinarians to not immediately treat unvaccinated horses until Hendra has been ruled out as the cause of the illness.

“Our test will reduce that waiting period and potentially improve animal welfare. It will take less than 10 minutes to get a diagnosis, and we’re hoping to develop a device that vets or biosecurity officers can take out to use on site.”

The virus was first identified in 1994 following an outbreak in racehorses in the Brisbane suburb of Hendra. The outbreak also resulted in the first human death. Cases have been reported only in south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Kristoffersen is now working within the university’s molecular engineering research laboratory, headed by senior lecturer in molecular engineering Dr Joanne Macdonald, who describes the prospects of the new test as exciting.

“The assay could be a useful tool to help protect veterinarians and reduce suffering in horses,” Macdonald says.

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