Biomedical engineer Frederick "Rick" Haselton and chemist David Wright are the brains behind this device.
Writing in the journal The Analyst, they say that their technique, which uses DNA hairpins attached to gold filaments, can detect the presence of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a leading cause of respiratory infections in infants and young children-at substantially lower levels than the standard laboratory assay.
"We hope that our research will help us break out of the catch-22 that is holding back major advances in the treatment of respiratory viruses," says Wright.
He points out that major pharmaceutical companies are not investing into the development of antiviral drugs for RSV and the other major respiratory viruses, as there is no way to detect the infections early enough for the drugs to work effectively without harmful side-effects.
"There are antiviral compounds out there, we have discovered some of them in my lab, that would work if we can detect the virus early enough, before there is too much virus in the system," he says.
He further points out that the lack of a reliable early detection system adds to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
Given that the symptoms of respiratory infections caused by viral agents are nearly identical to those caused by bacteria, Wright says that antibiotics used to target bacteria are often incorrectly prescribed for viral infections.
The researcher further says that not only is this ineffective, but it also increases the number of antibiotic-resistant strains.
The available standard tests for RSV require doctors to send a mucous sample from a patient to a special laboratory, and by the time the results come, respiratory viruses often multiply and make it too late for antiviral drugs to work.
"(By contrast) our system could easily be packaged in a disposable device about the size of a ballpoint pen," says Haselton.
The researchers also revealed that tests on the sensitivity of their system had shown that it could detect the presence of RSV virus particles at levels that are 200 times below the minimum detection level of the standard ELISA method.
That extreme sensitivity, combined with the basic simplicity of the approach, could make it "attractive for further development as a viral detection platform," the scientists wrote in the Analyst article.
According to them, the next major step in the development process is to see how the device performs with real patient samples.