New light-based tool could cut cost of spotting viral infections

New light-based tool could cut cost of spotting viral infections


Recently, a team of researchers from Harvard University, Cambridge, and Jiangsu University, Zhenjiang, developed a novel tool that can detect viral infections in cells using light and basic principles of high-school physics. Their findings, published in the journal Science Advances in March, promise a significant advancement in early virus detection.

GS-03 (Science and technology)


  • The spread of viruses from animals to humans, known as zoonosis, has the potential to unleash pandemics akin to COVID-19, leading to severe public health crises and significant economic and social disruptions.
  • In an effort to preempt such outbreaks, public health experts have championed the ‘One Health’ approach, which advocates for the integrated monitoring and protection of plant, animal, environmental, and human health.

What is the Topic About?

  • This analysis delves into the innovative method developed by researchers to detect viral infections using light.
  • The discussion covers the significance of this breakthrough, its implications for controlling the spread of viruses, key takeaways from the research, and future prospects in the field of virology and public health.

Significance of the New Method

  • Viruses can significantly alter the morphology of infected cells, causing changes in their shapes, sizes, and structural features. As the viral infection progresses, these changes become more pronounced.
  • The new method leverages these cellular changes to detect viral infections by observing how light is distorted as it passes through infected cells. This distortion creates a unique pattern or ‘fingerprint’ that indicates the presence of a virus.
  • The researchers demonstrated this technique by infecting pig testicle cells with pseudorabies virus and observing the resultant light distortions through a microscope. They tracked these changes over time, comparing the diffraction patterns of infected cells with those of healthy cells. The differences in these patterns served as reliable indicators of viral infection.

Against the Spread of Viruses

  • The method developed by the researchers offers several advantages over traditional virus detection techniques:
    • Speed: The light-based method can detect viral infections within two hours, compared to the 40 hours required by standard methods.
    • Cost-effectiveness: The equipment needed for this new method costs approximately one-tenth of that required for traditional techniques, making it accessible to a broader range of facilities, especially in resource-constrained settings.
    • Simplicity: The process involves shining light on a sample and analyzing the diffraction patterns, eliminating the need for complex chemical reagents and extensive lab procedures.
  • Current virus detection methods, such as those involving chemical reagents, are not only time-consuming but also costly. For instance, one standard method involves adding a reagent like dimethyl thiazolyl diphenyl tetrazolium bromide to isolated cells. The reagent reacts with enzymes in infected cells to produce a color change, indicating a potential viral infection. However, this method is both labor-intensive and expensive, with equipment costs around $3,000 (₹2.5 lakh). The new light-based technique significantly reduces these costs and complexities.

Key Takeaways

  • Enhanced Detection Capabilities: The new method can distinguish between uninfected, virus-infected, and dead cells based on their diffraction patterns. Infected cells exhibit distinct light and dark stripe contrasts and increased textural differences in light intensity, providing clear indicators of infection.
  • Application in Livestock and Pets: The low cost and simplicity of the method make it particularly useful for those working closely with animals, such as livestock and pet owners. Early detection of viral infections can prevent the spread of diseases, improve animal health, and enhance breeding programs.
  • Broader Implications for Public Health: The ability to detect viral infections quickly and cheaply is crucial for managing outbreaks, especially in low- and middle-income countries. This method aligns with the WHO’s recommendations for rapid detection and response to animal outbreaks as a primary defense against zoonotic diseases.

Future Prospects

The potential applications of this light-based detection method are vast. Beyond its immediate use in livestock and pets, the technique could revolutionize how viral infections are detected and managed in various settings:

  • Public Health Surveillance: Implementing this method in public health laboratories could enhance surveillance programs, enabling faster responses to emerging viral threats.
  • Environmental Monitoring: The technique could be adapted for environmental samples, such as water and soil, to monitor for viral contamination and prevent outbreaks.
  • Clinical Applications: In healthcare settings, the method could be used for rapid screening of patients, improving diagnostic accuracy and treatment outcomes.
  • The tool’s generic nature is a significant advantage, as it can detect a wide range of viral infections, not just specific viruses like H5N1. This versatility means that it could identify new or unexpected viral threats, providing a critical early warning system.