Design of system that will revolutionize control of influenza epidemics

November 12, 2008

Ikerlan-IK4, Gaiker-IK4 and the Donostia hospital in representation of Bioef are taking part in a European project the goal of which is to design a portable device that will revolutionise the manner of controlling flu epidemics internationally, thanks to a significant reduction in the time needed for their detection from the current 24 hours to a period of between 30 and 60 minutes, and to an increase in the number of control points. This research, in which other European partners are also participating within the EU VII Framework Programme, has been earmarked a budget of nearly four million euros.

The Portfastflu project is working on the development of a small card incorporating advanced microtechnologies, with the aim of having portable systems on hand which will significantly reduce the diagnosis time and thus provide a rapid intervention and subsequent monitoring. The handling of this device does not require highly qualified personnel and will be low cost. Moreover, it will be capable of identifying the strains of the seasonal flu epidemics and also the subtypes of Avian influenza, of great interest because of the particularly high incidence rates of this variety in developing countries. Flu can be mortal, especially amongst the elderly and with those who have chronic illnesses, although there are antiviral drugs, these are only effective if they are administered very early, a fact that intensifies the interest in this new diagnostic method. With animals, flu amongst birds has a very high mortality rate, causing great economic losses. The presence of certain bird flu viruses also has a bearing on humans, as amongst these varieties there are viruses that can infect people.

The results of this analysis, in the case of being positive, can be transmitted in a few seconds via GPS to one of the 112 flu monitoring laboratories that the World Health Organisation has set up around the world. In this way the time for transport and subsequent analysis of the clinical samples is eliminated. Another advantage of the system is that there is no need to attend a health centre, given that the portability of the device enables the analysis and diagnosis in any place, such as airports, farms, schools or elderly persons' homes.

The benefits of the application of this development in the human health field are innumerable, as early diagnosis facilitates medical decisions on appropriate treatment and subsequent monitoring. It will also be extremely useful for the production of vaccines, given that it will provide more rapid and precise information on the type of flu in question, thus enabling progress in the production of more efficacious vaccines.

In the case of Avian flu, these advantages increase with multiple applications. Principally, this system will be able to significantly improve the rapid detection of outbreaks of the illness in less developed countries in Africa and Asia, with fewer resources for this end, given that the card is easy to use and low cost. Moreover, it can be used for quick tests with ill persons arriving at ports and airports from regions where Avian flu is going around, and thus reduce the risk of its introduction and propagation.
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Elhuyar Fundazioa

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