SINGAPORE Europe's top semiconductor maker, STMicroelectronics, said it has developed a portable chip to detect influenza viruses including bird flu in humans.
The device, which functions as a mini laboratory on a chip, can screen and identify multiple classes of pathogens and genes in a single diagnostic test within two hours, unlike other tests available on the market that can detect only one strain at a time and require days or weeks to obtain results.
The chip can differentiate human strains of the Influenza A and B viruses, drug-resistant strains and mutated variants, including the Avian Flu or H5N1 strain.
There have been 236 human deaths globally from the H5N1 strain, according to the World Health Organisation, though it remains mainly a bird virus.
"ST sees new high growth opportunities in the healthcare market, especially in areas like patient care," said Francois Guibert, STMicro's Asia Pacific chief executive, at a briefing in Singapore on Monday marking the commercial launch.
The VereFlu Chip was developed by the Franco-Italian chipmaker together with Singapore's privately held Veredus Laboratories after more than a year of research. The application underwent extensive evaluation trials at Singapore's National University Hospital last year.
It allows users to process and analyze patient samples -- comprising human blood, serum or respiratory swabs -- on a single disposable thumbnail-sized microchip.
Guibert said revenue contributions from its biomedical chip business would remain "negligible" for at least another three to five years.
Veredus Chief Executive Rosemary Tan said the company had obtained "very promising" sales orders from hospitals and non-hospital customers, but declined to provide details.
Another big potential market is the screening of travelers at airports and border checkpoints, Tan said.
Experts are monitoring the H5N1 virus for signs of mutation into a form easily transmitted from person to person, a development that could trigger a deadly pandemic. So far most human cases can be traced to contact with infected birds.
STMicro and Veredus have set up a joint laboratory in Singapore, where their experts will work on developing new biomedical applications using STMicro's chip platform for other infectious diseases, oncology and heart-disease markers.
(Reporting by Jennifer Tan; editing by Neil Chatterjee)