Counting viruses and mustering molecules

Media releases, New Zealand

How many viruses are there in your blood? How many dangerous nano-particles in your car exhaust?

qViro is a revolutionary New Zealand invention that offers the potential to quickly and cheaply answer these questions. It’s a feature of Ausbiotech – the national biotechnology conference – being held in Melbourne today.

The beta version is the size of a coffee grinder and can muster and count the number of viruses in a sample in minutes. This is a truly portable, desktop instrument that is powered from the USB drive of a computer.

Its competitors are the size of washing machines, may take days to get a result, or cost upwards of $50,000.

When commercially released in April 2009, qViro will cost about $10,000 according to Paul Atkins, Australo’s Director of External Relations.

“We want the technology to be available to every researcher who needs it, rather than making them queue up for one large and expensive machine in the basement,” he says.

The device measures single biological molecules by pulling them through a small adjustable hole or nanopore – just a few millionths of a millimetre wide. As each molecule passes through it temporarily blocks the hole and changes the electrical environment. Australo’s instruments can measure these changes and profile each molecule as it passes through. They call the process SIOS (scanning ion occlusion spectroscopy).

“It’s the adjustability of the hole that makes Australo’s technology unique,” says Paul.

“For example, we can adjust it to count the number of particles of a particular size range. These may be HIV or avian flu virus particles in a sample. Because we can get results in minutes we have the potential to rapidly measure the viral load in a sample. One application of this is to look at the effect of anti-viral drugs on the viral load to better manage the drug regime or get the dose right.” This is a key issue for drug resistance especially with the complex and potentially toxic drugs used to fight HIV.

Another potential application of qViro is in the detection and measure of viruses in, for example, fish farms – giving rapid warning of health issues.

Viruses are just one kind of ‘nanoparticle’. A second version of the device – qNano – will be able to detect a wider range of nanoparticles – such as airborne pollutants.

“We know that micron-scale particles in car and truck exhausts can affect our lungs,” says Paul. “Now it’s becoming apparent that there are a host of potentially dangerous nanoparticles as well. qNano is being developed to detect and quantify these particles as well – quickly and relatively cheaply.”

Earlier this year Australo received a $NZ281,250 grant from the Australia New Zealand Biotechnology Partnership Fund (ANZBPF) for work in partnership with the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) at the University of Queensland. Together they are working on an application of the technology that will allow them to trap a single strand of DNA in the hole and then test that single strand for certain chemical reactions (methylations) that might indicate cancer.

Curiously Murray Broom, one of the co-inventors of the device, first used the polyurethane membrane as a skin for folding kayaks.


The Australia New Zealand Biotechnology Partnership Fund (ANZBPF) is designed to facilitate and accelerate trans-Tasman biotechnology industry collaboration. It was established in 2004 in response to recommendations of the Biotechnology Taskforce and is administered by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

For further information please contact: Tiffiney Gee, Marketing & Communications Manager AusPac, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise +61 415 371 581,

Or Niall Byrne, Science in Public, +61 (3) 9398 1416, +61 417 131 977,