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UGA Wins Grant to Study Flu with Lasers

The University of Georgia is researching new ways to combat the flu — with lasers.

This year’s flu outbreak is rampant. As of mid-January, 48 states reported widespread influenza activity and more than 5,200 people had been hospitalized. It isn’t a pandemic, but UGA’s developing technology could help prevent one in the future.

National Institutes of Health granted researchers at UGA $1.1 million to refine a method that allows them to fingerprint the flu virus with laser beams.

“We can tell from that fingerprint whether the flu is a normal/seasonal flu, whether it’s a virulent flu, whether it’s even the flu or not,” said Richard Dluhy, a UGA professor of chemistry.

Virulence is a virus or bacteria’s capacity to defeat the body’s defenses. The more virulent, he said, the more dangerous.

Dluhy and colleagues have been working on the fingerprinting process for about five years and will use the NIH grant to refine the technology over the next four.

Thus far tests have been more than 95 percent accurate, which Dluhy said is much better than the rapid tests available now, which have about a 50/50 chance of a false positive reading. Accurate tests available now take about 24 hours.

If Dluhy and cohorts Stephen Tompkins and Ralph Tripp are successful, it could mean quick and accurate influenza testing on-site at doctors’ offices or clinics. And that, Dluhy said, could be advantageous.

Should a dangerously virulent strain emerge, early identification could prevent mass fatalities. Such early detection would still be too late to provide a vaccine that season — vaccines take six months to develop — but public health officials could order isolation, quarantine or other measures to prevent the disease from spreading.

Easy strain identification could also mean more accurate prescriptions of antiviral drugs like TamiFlu. Doctors are wary of prescribing drugs when they’re not certain a patient has the flu, Tompkins said, but a quick test could eliminate doubt.

Successful development could also lead to similar identification methods for other viruses and bacteria.

“This is what we call a platform technology,” Dluhy said. “Once you have the basics down, it can be applied to a number of pathogens.”

That would allow doctors to easily test patients for strep, mononucleosis and sinus infections and have an answer within minutes.

That’s what Mike Sakalian, the program director who recommended the grant for funding at NIH, is most excited about. His division isn’t focused on researching specific diseases; it’s interested in a useful technology. “We’re interested in things that have broad applicability to a range of diseases and also to basic science,” he said.

It is difficult to predict how long before that technology could become available in offices and clinics, he said.

The method the researchers are using is starkly different from current tests. Currently, Dluhy said, lab workers have to amplify the amount of the test material they have, such as culturing bacteria for a strep test. That takes time.

“We’re trying to … do this without the elaborate chemistry and biochemistry,” Dluhy said.

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