Every winter, people running a fever and complaining of muscle pain swarm the nation’s clinics, suspecting one thing: the flu.

An estimated 12 million to 16 million people in Japan come down with the flu every year. When flu season is in full swing, it can sicken as many as 2 million people, including babies and schoolchildren, in just a week, according to the health ministry.

The problem is, patients often get sicker at the very institutions where they seek care, as they wait for minutes or even hours to see a doctor, get a prescription and pay the bill.

But what if you could get a flu diagnosis at home, with something as easy as a pregnancy test kit?

Lisa Sakashita, 33, set up tech venture Nanotis to meet such needs last June. Staffed mostly by young engineering students at the University of Tokyo, known commonly as Todai, the Tokyo-based firm is developing a kit that would allow people to find out whether they have a flu virus in a minute — much faster than the 10 minutes or so required for existing tests.

While the product is still in the development stage and is expected to take until around 2021 to become commercially available, the firm says it will revolutionize the way flu is diagnosed and treated.

“Currently, it takes an extremely long time to get a flu diagnosis,” said Nanotis CEO and founder Sakashita, who has a master’s degree in physics from the university. “A flu test, in which a doctor swipes the inside of your nose with a swab to collect a specimen, is also very painful, sometimes causing nosebleeds. We want to develop a speedy kit that anyone can use — with a chip and a smartphone.”

A key to such a product is nanotechnology. By making a specimen-collecting chip supersmall through a process called “scaling,” Nanotis can reduce the amount of virus sample required to a tenth or even a hundredth of the amount needed with existing kits, said Michika Onoda, a 26-year-old doctoral student in materials engineering who joined the venture as chief technology officer this month.

The scaling of the chip, which will be disposable, can also make detection faster, Onoda said, adding that the technology is similar to one for reducing the size of computer central processing units, where the smaller the components become, the faster the machine can run.

A speedy and accurate diagnosis is particularly important for flu patients, as antiviral medicines such as Tamiflu are effective only if taken within 48 hours of the appearance of symptoms. With existing tests, it takes 12 hours for flu viruses to become detectable, with accuracy rates of around 60 to 70 percent.

Nanotis — which is working with labs run by renowned nanotechnology researcher Hiroyuki Fujita and cell/protein engineer Teruyuki Nagamune, both at Todai — aims to beat others in both the time needed for detection and accuracy, Onoda said.

The company plans to use nasal fluid for testing, but it eventually wants to develop a saliva test, which involves even more advanced scaling technologies, he added.

Nanotis also aims to release a smartphone app with which users can send a photo of a chip showing the test outcome (much like a blue bar that signals “positive” in a pregnancy test), for a formal diagnosis by specialists, Sakashita said.

By pooling and sharing such data, the kit could be used to prevent pandemics and predict real-time demand for drugs, she said, noting that the firm’s long-term vision includes applying the technology to other infectious diseases, such as the Zika virus, norovirus and HIV.

One of the biggest challenges for Nanotis is obtaining regulatory approval as medical equipment. Currently no flu tests are available for home use in Japan.

Having completed a provisional application for a U.S. patent, the firm is also eyeing a product launch in the U.S. and Europe, Sakashita said.

A Matter of Health is a new weekly series on the latest health research, technology or policy issue in Japan. It appears on Thursdays.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.