By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor
WASHINGTON, May 29 (Reuters) - A new device can quickly detect 92 different viruses, including several strains of the feared H5N1 avian flu virus or other emerging new infections, U.S. researchers reported on Tuesday.
They said their mass spectrometer device can also be used in big hospitals to watch for outbreaks of dangerous drug-resistant infections.
"Therefore, we can keep up with the virus, even if there is a new variant of H5N1 circulating that is different from last year"e;s," Ranga Sampath, executive director of Ibis Biosciences Inc., told Reuters.
Carlsbad, Californina-based Ibis, a division of Isis Pharmaceuticals, <ISIS.O>, worked with U.S. military researchers to fine-tune their device and test it against a range of flu viruses.
Flu is difficult to monitor because spot tests cannot identify the precise strain. When testing people for the H5N1 flu virus, the World Health Organization uses specialized labs that can spend weeks first growing and then testing tiny samples of virus.
The new detector, called the T5000, works in just four hours to identify the precise strain, the company reported in the Public Library of Science.
Ibis researchers worked with teams at the Naval Medical Research Unit in Cairo, Egypt, U.S. Army Medical Research in Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and other groups to test the T5000.
"We detected and correctly identified 92 mammalian and avian influenza isolates, representing 30 different H and N types, including 29 avian H5N1 isolates," the company said.
The device was 97 percent accurate in identifying the flu strain infecting 656 people who gave specimens between 1999 and 2006, it said.
WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been calling with greater and greater urgency for new and better diagnostic tests for flu and other microbes.
WATCHING FOR A PANDEMIC
H5N1 is especially feared now because it has killed 186 people out of 307 infected. Although it only rarely infects humans, it could mutate into a form that transmits easily from one person to another.
That would cause a pandemic that could kill millions in a few months, or something else could. Experts would like quick tests so they know what is infecting people who become suddenly or mysteriously ill.
"Everybody"e;s worried about H5N1. It might be H5N1, or it could be any other avian flu off the charts of everybody"e;s radar at the moment," Ibis"e;s Dave Ecker said in a telephone interview.
"Molecular tests are like launching a ship. You just can"e;t keep up with either the breadth of infectious agents or the way they mutate and change over time," Ecker added. "We design the test for whole groups of microbes or all families of microbes."
The T5000 first uses a process called polymerase chain reaction or PCR to amplify the genetic material in a sample of virus or bacteria so it can be tested. It then uses an advanced mass spectrometry technique to identify the sample.
Ecker said the device is not portable and is not cheap.
It is about 6 feet long and three feet tall (two metres long and a metre tall) . It costs between $400,000 and $500,000, so only large institutions or governments could invest in one.
But Ecker said using the device to screen for outbreaks of drug-resistant bacteria could save a big hospital close to that much in a year, because such infections are difficult to control and very expensive to treat.