Researchers from HK’s PolyU develop diagnostic system to identify up to 40 types of bacteria or viruses causing respiratory infections

13-Feb-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Researchers from Polytechnic University have developed a system that can identify up to 40 types of bacteria or viruses linked to respiratory infections in around an hour, raising hopes for doctors in speeding up the diagnosis for patients with similar symptoms.

The system, which can detect pathogens including the novel coronavirus, comes as scientists around the world are racing against time to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines against the deadly virus believed to have originated in Wuhan in mainland China.

The project, which was initially denied funding from the Innovation and Technology Commission, also involves the city’s top microbiologist tackling the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus.

Professor Terence Lau Lok-ting, director of innovation and technology development at PolyU who led the research, said the invention could speed up the diagnostic process for respiratory infections.

“In general, current tests can only identify one to three types of bacteria or virus at one time. If you need to check for 40 pathogens, you either get 40 people to perform tests or do the tests 40 times,” Lau said.

He also described the system, which would be able to detect up to 80 types of pathogens at once upon further development, as the “most comprehensive” one.

“Current technologies can cover up to 22 types of pathogens… but more pathogens can cause influenza-like symptoms such as fever, runny nose, and cough,” he said.

For example, the novel coronavirus and various flu viruses can lead to similar symptoms.

The researchers used microfluidic technology, which involved the flow of fluids through microchannels, to create a cartridge for testing. To conduct a test on respiratory pathogens, one just needs to place a patient’s specimen in the cartridge, which will then be placed inside a device for automated analysis. A report will be generated in a connected computer in around an hour, a period similar to that needed for current technologies.

Lau said a test in the new system was expected to cost a few hundred Hong Kong dollars, while the existing tests cost more than HK$1,000 (US$129) for each examination.

The development of the diagnostic system, which took four years, was also supported by Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, an infectious diseases expert from the University of Hong Kong. The PolyU researchers conducted clinical evaluation of the system at Yuen’s laboratory in Queen Mary Hospital, the teaching hospital for HKU.

Yuen hoped the system would be widely used in hospitals and clinics for diagnostic purposes.

Dr Manson Fok, chair of the board of Avalon Biomedical Management, a local biotechnology company that partially funded the project, said the researchers had approached the government’s Innovation and Technology Commission for assistance, only to be rejected.

He urged the government to provide more support for research into infectious diseases.

Public hospitals have introduced an expanded test for respiratory infections for children since the start of the current peak influenza season. Compared to the test for adults that can identify three major types of flu viruses, the test for children can identity more viruses as well as bacteria.


Category: Hong Kong

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