HCMV, a member of the herpes family of viruses, can have serious health consequences for those with weak immune systems, and a “devastating impact” on pregnant women and their babies if infected.
The grant is a prestigious Product Development Award under the National Institute for Health Research Invention for Innovation (NIHR i4i) scheme to Dr Vincent Teng of Swansea University’s College of Engineering, Dr Richard Stanton of the Institute of Infection and Immunity at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine, and the Wales Specialist Virology Centre. It will support a three-year project which began this month (October 1, 2014).
HCMV is spread through bodily fluids including saliva, blood, breast milk, semen and urine and the majority of adults will be infected by HCMV at some point in their life.
Once infected, the virus is carried within the person for life, but as long as people remain healthy, they rarely show any symptoms.
“However, HCMV can result in serious health complications and even death for those with weak immune systems, such as patients with HIV and organ transplant recipients,” said Dr Teng, an Associate Professor and Head of the Nanoelectronics Research Group at Swansea University, who will lead the work.
“It is a particular problem if caught by a woman during pregnancy, a problem affecting about one to two babies in every 200 in the UK. This makes it more common than Down’s Syndrome.
“HCMV can cause permanent disabilities such as mental retardation, blindness, deafness, or even fatality, to infected babies. Many are not diagnosed at birth because they do not show symptoms, however they can develop hearing or vision loss, or developmental problems, months or years later.
“Early detection of HCMV is critical to allow intervention as soon as possible, in order to minimise the long-term impact of these problems.”
This project allows the research and development of a new, non-invasive, low-cost, easy to use point of care diagnostic device, which can directly detect HCMV either in urine or saliva.
“Such novel technology is ideal for large-scale screening programs,” added Dr Teng. “For example it would become possible to screen all newborn babies for the virus, allowing targeted treatment even before symptoms are seen.
“We are very pleased with this prestigious award, as it allows us to develop an innovative invention that offers low-cost, easy-to-use, rapid detection of pathogens using nanotechnology.
“The invention is suitable for large-scale screening of viral infections with excellent sensitivity and specificity without the need to send the sample to laboratory. This would enable early and effective treatment of the diseases.”
The device can be manufactured using a printing technique, which offers low-cost high-volume production of the technology, to ensure commercial viability of the invention. This is in collaboration with co-investigator Dr Davide Deganello, from the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (WCPC) at Swansea University.
Dr Richard Stanton said: “Up to 1,000 babies are born every year in the UK with permanent disabilities as a result of HCMV infection. This project is a fantastic opportunity to combine expertise in virus infection at Cardiff University, viral diagnosis at the Wales Specialist Virology Centre, nanotechnology at Swansea University and printing at the WCPC to make a real difference to their quality of life.”
Welcoming the news of the grant award, Caroline Star, Chair of CMV Action, said: “We are very excited on this innovative project. An early diagnosis of congenital HCMV is crucial to ensure that families can get the treatment and monitoring their babies need. Sadly this often does not happen.
“The families we represent feel strongly that more should be done to screen newborn babies for HCMV. We hope this research will show how this can be done and help to limit the devastating impact of HCMV.”
Dr Vincent Teng and Dr Richard Stanton’s project idea was developed through the Welsh Crucible, an award-winning programme of personal, professional and leadership development for the future research leaders of Wales, which supports research-inspired innovation and cross-disciplinary collaboration in Wales. Dr Teng and Dr Stanton were both awardees and participants of the Welsh Crucible in 2012.