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Preventing a Flu Pandemic

Researchers create a myriad of technologies to prevent a deadly outbreak

by Los Alamos National Laboratory
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Los Alamos researchers are working to prevent a flu pandemic via multilateral science. A Laboratory researcher created a device that can be used to detect and track global outbreaks and migration patterns of potentially harmful pathogens. In related projects, scientists are developing a hand-held cartridge that can tell you immediately if you've contracted the flu. Early detection is key to recovery—more importantly, it could help contain a deadly influenza outbreak.

Influenza is one of the greatest bio threats and can be extremely deadly. In 1919, the Spanish flu killed nearly 50 million people.

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) researcher Torsten Staab invented a patented hand-held avian surveillance tool—the first ever—that allows researchers in the field to enter data and track movement. This tool has been called the “Holy Grail of clinical testing.”

The highly portable, small, rugged device is being used to track bird flu outbreaks in places such as Alaska, California, Russia, Japan, Vietnam, Mongolia, Canada, Ecuador, and parts of Africa. It features a touch screen with graphical user interface, digital camera, Global Positioning System, microphone, memory card slot, and wireless Bluetooth and WiFi communications.

“By improving field-data-acquisition practices, enabling and accelerating all-digital information sharing across organizational boundaries, I hope that this little device will help researchers and health-care officials around the world detect and track outbreaks and migration patterns of potentially harmful pathogens, such as H5N1, much faster and more easily,” Staab, who works in the Applied Engineering Technology Division, said.

Portable Flu Test Kit and Outbreak-Mapping Software

Collaborators in LANL’s Bioscience Division are attempting to construct a self-contained biochemistry lab—smaller than a deck of cards—to be an inexpensive, portable device that can be used by nearly anyone to detect harmful viruses. While the technology is sophisticated, it will be as easy to use as an at-home pregnancy test.

The H5N1 avian influenza virus, or bird flu, is infecting and killing birds around the world. As with the Spanish flu virus, our immune system has no experience with H5N1. If the bird flu virus mutates and becomes easily transmissible between humans, the world would likely face another devastating pandemic.

The prototype dipstick, as this device is called, will detect not only the H5N1 influenza virus but also others that produce flu-like symptoms, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, and the common cold virus. However, its greatest advantage over current detectors is speed. Pandemics are fueled, in part, by a lack of timely information—the virus spreads before infected persons can be identified and properly quarantined. In today's highly mobile society, early detection is imperative.

Los Alamos is also responsible for databases that gather and organize vast amounts of genomic information about AIDS, hepatitis C, and influenza, information that is used by researchers around the world to identify pathogens and design strategies to thwart them.

The dipstick team called on Staab, engineer of the world's first hand-held, disposable, DNA-based influenza detector, to help create the device.

The dipstick has caught the attention of an industrial manufacturer, who hopes to mass-produce the device at a projected retail cost of about $10 per dipstick. If that happens, we can all start thinking about clearing a little shelf space in our medicine cabinets.

LANL researchers on the dipstick project included Hong Cai, Xiaoyun Lu, David Fox, Taraka Dale and Lei Chen.

"Eventually, we hope to be able to go from sample collection to results in less than an hour, even in patients who are not fully symptomatic," says David Fox, an Agnew National Security Postdoctoral Fellow formerly on the dipstick team. "That would give people an incredible head start for initiating response strategies."

Additionally, in efforts to stop a pandemic, scientists developed EpiCast, software that models infectious disease spread to help epidemiologists understand the spread and impact of an avian influenza pandemic. This software was created by Los Alamos scientists Tim Germann, Kai Kadau, and Catherine Macken.

With its unprecedented level of detail, EpiCast has been used to evaluate various medical and non medical mitigation strategies in the event of a pandemic influenza outbreak in the United States.

For decades, researchers did not know how the rapidly evolving influenza spread, but now they are getting the answers to help stop a deadly outbreak.