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Brit boffins build projectile-vomiting robot to kill norovirus

Artificial 3m spew offers infection insight

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Vid Bioboffins at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Derbyshire, UK, have developed a robot that can projectile vomit on command as a tool for studying the spread of the highly infectious norovirus.

Reuters reports that the hyperemetic droid has been dubbed "Vomiting Larry" by its creator, researcher Catherine Makison, who describes it as a "humanoid simulated vomiting system."

The goal of said vomiting system is to study the reach and dispersion of human vomitus, which is one of the primary ways that diseases such as norovirus can spread.

Norovirus is a fairly common viral infection that is sometimes known as the "winter vomiting bug" due to its increased prevalence in the colder months. Outbreaks are generally triggered when humans ingest contaminated food or water, but can continue when subsequent people come in contact with surfaces that have been contaminated by the initial patient's effluvium.

How do surfaces become contaminated? That's the icky part. Fecal contamination is one way. Aerosolization of the virus through vomit is another, and that route of transmission is believed to have been responsible for many significant outbreaks.

Little wonder, considering what a powerful force puke can be. Scientists studying Vomiting Larry, which was designed as an anatomically correct model of the human digestive tract, have determined that a single spew of vomit can carry particulate matter up to 3 meters (9.8 feet).

Such an eruption would be sufficient to infect an entire room with norovirus, boffins say. According to Ian Goodfellow of the University of Cambridge, UK, it takes fewer than 20 norovirus particles to infect someone, and each droplet of vomit can contain as many as 2 million particles.

"The dramatic nature of the vomiting episodes produces a lot of aerosolized vomit, much of which is invisible to the naked eye," Goodfellow told Reuters.

Furthermore, researchers have found that norovirus particles can remain viable and infectious for up to 12 hours on hard surfaces and for as long as 12 days on contaminated fabrics. Contaminated water can transmit the virus months after the initial infection.

To help track the spread of Vomiting Larry's puke, boffins filled his artificial guts with a "vomitus substitute" that includes a fluorescent marker, making even tiny splatters of his sick visible under ultraviolet light.

While these experiments in emesis have helped scientists understand how norovirus can spread, the bad news is that there is still no cure for the illness. Like influenza, norovirus is a rapidly mutating disease, which complicates efforts to develop a vaccine. What's more, scientists still don't have a method to cultivate norovirus in the laboratory, making it difficult to study.

For now, health experts say that washing your hands with soap and water for at least 15 seconds remains one of the most effective methods of preventing norovirus infection.

And if you encounter any real-life Vomiting Larrys, steer clear. ®

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