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The Huntsville Times

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Scientist needs samples to check if it will work

A scientist at Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is developing what could be the fastest genetic test yet for detecting swine flu.

Dr. Jian Han, a HudsonAlpha faculty investigator, said the test should reveal within four hours whether a patient has swine flu or something else. The test will check for 26 viruses and bacteria, including the swine-flu strain now racing around the globe.

A quick diagnosis would allow doctors to isolate affected patients and start treating them quickly.

"We can run one test from one sample and in a few hours know exactly what you have," Han said Tuesday. "To be able to give a positive answer that it’s not flu but something else will ease patients’ worry and physicians’ worry."

Before the test can be made available to hospitals, Han must verify that it works properly. That means getting nasal swabs from some of the 64 U.S. patients who have tested positive for swine flu since the outbreak began in Mexico.

So the test could still be four weeks away, he said.

"The bottleneck is, when can we have access to these samples to do the validation studies?" said Han, who has requested them from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and affected state
health departments.

Han said he began working on the swine-flu test when it became clear that the virus was spreading. Public health officials in California and Texas helped by giving him the genetic sequence of the flu strain that’s
making people sick.

Called H1N1, it is a combination of the pig and human versions of the flu.

While Han is developing the flu test in his role as a HudsonAlpha investigator, Diatherix Laboratories is doing the the genetic work. Han is lab director for Diatherix, a for-profit biotech company at the institute.
Diatherix CEO Dennis Grimaud said the company will get the test onto the market as soon as it’s ready.

Hospitals that suspect swine flu in a patient would ship nasal swabs to the company’s Huntsville lab for testing.

"We’re getting phone calls every single day" from hospitals eager to use the test, Grimaud said Tuesday.

"You need a front-line defense, an early detection device. Right now, there isn’t one."

Han has been on the front lines of a global medical crisis before. During a deadly 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in China, he created a test to quickly detect the disease. That test is still being
used.

The swine-flu test is a perfect illustration of HudsonAlpha’s mission to quickly convert groundbreaking genetic science into products that help people, Grimaud said.

"This," he said, "is exactly what they thought the HudsonAlpha Institute would be."

The center, in Cummings Research Park, was built with $80 million in private money and $50 million in state funds. It’s the brainchild of local biotech pioneers Jim Hudson and Lonnie McMillian.

By Steve Doyle
Times Staff Writer