The flu virus could soon become much easier to identify, according to a new study. Researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK have discovered that a mix of sugar gold nanoparticles can detect influenza pathogens and differentiate between individual strains within 30 minutes. Aside from facilitating disease control, the innovative method could inspire a new generation of virus detecting devices.

Prevailing scientific research suggests that 90 percent of infections use so-called carbohydrate recognition to bind with biological targets. Published in the journal Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry, the new study sought to determine whether this process can be a reliable indicator of influenza presence. According to lead researcher Robert Field, the same process has previously been used in innovative methods of cholera detection.

"The sensor is a suspension of sugars tagged with inexpensive gold nanoparticles," Field told Medical News Today. "If cholera is present, it will attach to the sugar, pulling the particles closer together. This creates a change in the photophysics of the suspension, resulting in a color change that is visible to the naked eye."

Using the same principles, Field and his team have now developed a sensor that not only identifies the presence of influenza, but differentiates between individual strains as well. The method will thus facilitate the distinction between human influenza virus and the more nefarious avian influenza."We have found that different types of flu virus have different sugar binding capabilities, so it is therefore possible to use a color change, not only to identify the presence and absence of the virus, but also to distinguish between them," Field explained.

In clinical settings, the new sensor could also save valuable time, as it yields conclusive results within 30 minutes. "Current methods of detection require isolation and culture of the virus and may take several hours or even days to get the results, which can be too long for the patient,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “It is clear that a rapid, diagnostic test that is able to discriminate between the different strains of virus is essential."

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), seasonal influenza kills 36,000 of the 200,000 Americans is hospitalizes each year. Infants, seniors, pregnant women, and obese people are among the most vulnerable. To learn more about flu control and prevention, visit the NIH’s online database.

Source: María J. Marín, Abdul Rashid, Martin Rejzek, Shirley A. Fairhurst, Stephen A. Wharton, Stephen R. Martin, John W. McCauley, Thomas Wileman, Robert A. Field, avid A. Russell. Glyconanoparticles for the plasmonic detection and discrimination between human and avian influenza virus. Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry, 3 September 2013.