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MicroKit Simplifies Infectious-Disease Detection

Infectious diseases, such as the H1N1 influenza strain, have wrought havoc not only on human populations in recent years but increasingly on critical bits of economic infrastructure such as transport systems and hospitals. Efforts to contain the spread of the viruses are often hampered by the time and complicated processes involved in the diagnosis, isolation and treatment of patients showing symptoms of such viruses.

A Singapore outfit has developed a device that could dramatically slash the amount of time, costs and human resources needed to diagnose infectious diseases during critical outbreaks. At first glance, the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology's MicroKit looks like a souped-up breadmaker. But its insides reveal the convergence of technologies from a number of different research fields, including electrical, biomedical and chemical engineering. The invention is a finalist in the Asian Innovation Awards. The kit brings together a number of traditionally complicated and hazardous processes involved in disease detection into one small unit.

"The main challenge is to basically miniaturize the whole system so it's very fast and requires a very small amount of samples," IBN Executive Director Jackie Ying said. "The whole set-up is very small so that you can put it on a benchtop and be able to use it not just in the hospital but in the clinics as well as in checkpoints such as airports," she said. Using samples of bodily tissue or fluids, the kit marries the RNA/DNA extraction and the molecular diagnosis processes and reduces the time taken for the total detection process to two hours from six.

An operator using the MicroKit need only place a very small sample into a cartridge that slots into the device for analysis. At present, the sample-preparation process involves several steps between different pieces of equipment, often located in different facilities. The numerous steps also increase the chance of sample contamination as well as exposure of the virus to those collecting and analyzing the sample. However, the portability of the MicroKit means disease detection can be carried out at decentralized locations where human traffic is concentrated. Additionally, people operating the kit in the field don't need to be medical professionals.

IBN has licensed the MicroKit technology to SG Molecular Diagnostics, a spinoff of Singapore-based Dynamed Biotech Pte. Ltd., which plans to develop a range of diagnostic devices. It's also currently engaged in clinical trials for bacterial detection with Singapore General Hospital and National University Hospital, also in Singapore. Another important advance the kit makes is through its sub-typing capabilities, which remove the historically troublesome degree of uncertainty about which strain of influenza a person may be carrying.

This means people who are carrying only seasonal variants of the flu as opposed to the more virulent strains of influenza A H1N1 need not be isolated, helping reduce congestion in the hospital system. Over the past decade, pandemics of highly infectious diseases have created large problems for governments, not just in terms of human lives claimed but also in terms of their ability to cripple health and transport systems. The increased connectivity of the global economy means the economic impact of such outbreaks can extend well beyond those parts of the world immediately affected by the infections.

While the development of this device has its genesis in the various influenza strains that have made headlines in recent years, Professor Ying says the kit, with minor modifications, could also be used to identify a host of other diseases and infections such as HIV; hand, foot and mouth disease; hepatitis; dengue fever; SARS and cancer. It could also be useful in helping pick up traces of bacteria in the food industry.

"We are always looking at being able to upgrade our system so we can not only look at one sample at a time but 20 samples at a time, which is really what's needed when you have an outbreak of disease," Professor Ying said.

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