A $20 chip can cut the time it takes to distinguish swine flu—aka the H1N1 influenza A virus—from days to hours, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said today.

The technology—InDevR, Inc.'s FluChip—includes normal 0.8- by 2-inch (2- by 5-centimeter) lab slides featuring a pencil-eraser sized patch of tiny dots containing pieces of influenza's genome. Researchers place a drop of a solution containing a sample of chemically amplified RNA (which the viruses use to make proteins) from the virus they're studying onto the slide. Once the dots react with the solution, the FluChip is placed in a 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) IntelliChip Reader where it's scanned and a digital image is produced that can help physicians identify an influenza virus down to its subtype. The process takes about seven hours.

The CDC earlier this week provided InDevR scientists with samples of the current H1N1 strain that's spread globally of late to see if the company could distinguish those samples from other types of influenza. "The FluChip assay detected all of the six swine-origin H1N1 viruses tested," Erica Dawson, InDevR's lead scientist on the project and co-inventor of the FluChip technology, says. The company now plans to give away about 25 of its IntelliChip Readers (which normally cost $3,900 and scan the FluChips) to public health labs. The cost of the chips will depend upon how many are ordered, but initially they'll charge $20 per chip, says Kathy Rowlen, a former University of Colorado chemistry and biochemistry professor who led the FluChip development effort and now serves as the InDevR's chief executive and science officer.

One of the InDevR technology's strengths is that it creates a new fingerprint of sorts for an unknown virus that researchers can match against existing virus fingerprints, according to Gary Heil, a researcher at University of Iowa's Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, which has been testing InDevR's technology for the past year. InDevR's chip, for example, "can give you a definitive answer on a particular virus, whether it's human or swine, and even whether it comes from swine in Eurasia or North America," he adds

The FluChip is similar in concept to the PhyloChip DNA array developed by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Merced. The credit card-sized PhyloChip, however, has been used to rapidly identify microbes and bacteria (such as those that plague coral reefs) as opposed to virus types and subtypes.

InDevR intends to ramp up its production so FluChip can be used by state public health labs. "We plan to make 2,000 FluChips over the coming months," Rowlen says. "Our goal is to be prepared for a possible severe flu season this Fall."

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) will be first to get the chips, which it will be able to use to evaluate both swine and seasonal influenza viruses.

Image of microarray reader and photoactivator courtesy of IntelliChip reader © InDevR, Inc.
Image of FluChip slide © InDevR, Inc.
Image of FluChip layout © InDevR, Inc.