Jan 10, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Fifteen undergraduates in Hong Kong designed a new method for identifying virus subtypes—which may help doctors save patients’ lives.

Doctors are already using the new technique on influenza A viruses, where they could discern subtypes in about an hour.

In an article in the South China Morning Post, Cathy Wong Wing-sze, a fourth-year student on the team said, “If frontline health workers know earlier whether a patient is a high-risk one, say, suffering from avian flu, diagnosis and treatment could be given earlier.

The students based their technique on an existing detection mechanism called Toehold Switch, developed in the US by American scientists in 2014. The mechanism identifies a virus by its genetic material, using a special sensing substance.

If the sensing substance—also called the “switch—encounters the virus type it’s supposed to identify, then its color changes.

Scientists use the Toehold Switch method to detect Zika.

The students developed four “switches” based on the gene sequences of four influenza A virus subtypes. They used virus subtypes H5, N1, H7, and N9 in their experiments.

While preliminary results of the test are hopeful, Andrew To Ching-yuet, the fourth-year student who led the team said that testing was only preliminary and that the technique needs further testing before applying it broadly.

Fellow team member, Tom Hui Kwok-lun said, “We also have to look at the sensitivity of the tests and whether there are any fake positive or negative results.”

Dr. Dominic Tsang Ngai-chong, chief inspection control officer for the Hospital Authority, which manages public hospitals in Hong Kong, said that the test could afford healthcare staff time to wait for test results before isolation patients. Currently, patients suspected of having avian flu are placed in immediate quarantine before confirmation of their illness.


Learn more about studying biomedical sciences.   

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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