A GROUP of researchers from Singapore has found a way to generate antibodies that can neutralise and deactivate the H7 strain of bird flu viruses.
This puts them a step closer to a diagnostic tool, a vaccine, and even antibody therapy for the H7N9 virus that has killed two dozen people and infected more than 120 in China so far.
The discovery came as China reported its latest fatality yesterday, as an 89-year-old man in Shanghai became the 24th person to die from the deadly virus.
The Singapore team began researching the H7 strain of viruses a few years ago, even before the current H7N9 scare.
A few years ago, the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory successfully developed a rapid test kit, as well as a potential vaccine, for all H5 strains of bird flu.
The laboratory's strategic research programme manager He Fang said the team improved on the technology and applied it to researching ways to diagnose and immunise against other forms of bird flus, such as the H7 strain.
In one study, her team successfully immunised mice against the N7 variant of the H7 virus.
They generated H7 antibodies and injected them into two groups of mice.
One group of mice was treated with antibodies before being infected with the virus. An infected group of mice was also treated with antibodies. Both groups survived.
"This means the antibodies can neutralise the virus, and can prevent the virus from replicating in the host," said Professor Jimmy Kwang, senior principal investigator at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory's Animal Health Biotechnology Group.
The technology has yet to be tested on the H7N9 virus because samples are not available here yet, but the researchers are confident that it can be applied just as efficiently.
It may take as little as a couple of months to develop a test kit, but coming up with a vaccine would take more time because of the clinical tests needed.
The H7N9 virus was first discovered in humans in March in China's eastern province of Shandong, but has spread to the central province of Hunan and southeastern province of Fujian.
Last week, Taiwan reported the first case of H7N9 infection outside of mainland China.
The victim, a 53-year-old businessman, had travelled to the eastern city of Suzhou, and developed symptoms three days after returning home via Shanghai.
In Singapore, the Health Ministry said that seven people aged between 18 and 73 years old have been tested for H7N9, but none tested positive.
These suspected cases had visited outpatient clinics and hospital emergency departments for symptoms such as cough, runny nose and fever.
They were hospitalised for further tests and treated normally after H7N9 was ruled out.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 30, 2013
To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/