The National Institutes of Health have awarded funding to University of Georgia researchers to refine a nanotechnology-based method that uses laser light beams to more accurately predict emerging influenza strains. The grant amount is for $1,124,914 over four years.
The research emphasizes identification of higher risk strains. “Currently there is no way to screen for the biochemical markers of influenza virulence,” says Richard Dluhy, Professor of Chemistry in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project. “The ability to routinely screen influenza isolates for virulence factors would be a highly significant advance.”
Studies have shown that different types of influenza may contain the same virulence factors. For example, the same protein was found in the different virus strains that caused both the 1997 Hong Kong bird flu and the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic that killed nearly 50 million people. If certain proteins and other molecules within the viruses can be associated with particularly virulent strains of influenza, epidemiologists might be able to prevent the spread of those strains.
The team is employing a method called ‘nano-optical detection’ to deposit a layer of microscopically thin silver wires called nanorods on a glass plate so the wires project at an angle from the plate. Fragments of synthetic nucleic acids known as oligonucleotides, or oligos, will be chemically attached to the nanorods. The oligos will capture bits of the influenza genetic material from virus samples, creating an oligo-virus complex.
Researchers will then expose the oligo-virus complex to a laser beam, which can penetrate the biological material without harming it. The angled wires amplify the beam as it reflects off the nanorod surface and the oligo-virus complex-a process called surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, or SERS. The amplification enables the researchers to record minute changes in the reflected beam’s frequency and intensity. The SERS measurements create a unique ‘fingerprint’ for different strains of viruses.
The method has already proven viable for identifying whole viruses, but the team will now take the process a step further by identifying virus components-the virulence factors-that survive from strain to strain.
“Nano-optical detection will help epidemiologists predict the appearance of deadlier flu strains with greater accuracy,” said Dluhy. “It will enable researchers to prepare the right types of vaccines far in advance of outbreaks.” The method, said Dluhy, may also entirely eliminate pandemics-world-spanning epidemics-if potential outbreaks can be spotted early and controlled with regional vaccination programs.