When University of Cambridge scientists first heard a virus wresting itself from the tenacious clutch of an antibody, the sound should have elicited a collective sigh of relief from fretting patients everywhere. The researchers were testing a new device that can hear the presence of a virus in a blood sample. For many patients, who sometimes wait days to get test results, the invention could mean on-the-spot detection of HIV, hepatitis and dozens of other pathogens, including anthrax and smallpox.
The Cambridge experiment involved a tiny slice of quartz crystal layered with antibodies. A virus in the first case, herpes simplex was introduced and subsequently bound to an antibody on the crystal. The scientists then slowly increased the frequency of an electric current flowing into the quartz. As the quartz oscillated, it whipped the virus and antibody back and forth.
Eventually the herpesvirus tore away from the antibody, emitting a faint pop. "If you apply enough force to a stick, it will snap and you hear a sound," explains Matthew Cooper, one of six researchers involved in the project. "Likewise, we can hear the sound of the bonds snapping when we break apart a virus and an antibody." The quartz acts like a piezoelectric microphone, converting mechanical vibrations into electrical impulses. Similarly, when a virus breaks from an antibody, the quartz changes the vibrations into detectable electrical signals.
This article was originally published with the title Hears to Your Health.