Simple “dipstick” test could quickly identify equine flu

A district vet in Australia doing an Equine Influenza test.
A district vet in Australia doing an Equine Influenza test during the country’s 2007 outbreak. © NSW DPI

A British company has developed a simple test using a dipstick that it says could be used to identify equine influenza.

Iceni Diagnostics has a patent for its approach to detecting and distinguishing between human and avian flu, and Chief Scientist Professor David Russell says a slight modification could provide a rapid non-invasive test for horses.

Russell co-founded Iceni Diagnostics with fellow scientist Professor Robert Field, a project leader at bio-science institute the John Innes Centre and an international expert in carbohydrate chemistry.

Field said that 90% of infections use carbohydrate recognition to bind with targets in human or animal bodies. As the mechanism is specific to each particular strain of flu, it can be used to form a sensor for the disease.

“Our sensor uses sugars tagged with inexpensive gold nanoparticles; if the virus is present it will stick to the particles, pulling them closer together. This creates a photophysics reaction and the sample changes colour.

Professor Rob Field

“We have found that there are differences between the carbohydrate detectors in the different types of flu. It is, therefore, possible to use a colour change to identify the presence and absence of the virus and to distinguish between them.”

By using sugars instead of more commonly used protein-based diagnostics, which need cold storage, the simple low technology approach has the potential for use worldwide with minimal training, providing results in seconds. It could be used as a routine screen to give an ‘all clear’ to horses before they travel to race meets and other gatherings.

Russell said that the new assay based on gold nanoparticles is faster than current methods of detection; Results showed that functionalised gold nanoparticles were able to detect the human influenza virus X31 (H3N2) within 30 minutes.

“Preventing a new influenza pandemic requires both vaccination and antiviral drugs to be administered within 48 hours of the infection in order to contain the disease.

“Current methods of detection require isolation and culturing of the virus, which may take several hours or even days to get the results. Using our test it would be possible to quickly identify infected animals at the stables and quarantine them, preventing the spread of disease.”

Carbohydrate chemistry is complex, and Iceni Diagnostics is seeking investment to modify its sensor to provide an equine flu dip test.

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