Scientific research colleagues working at Harvard University in the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering recently published a study in a recent edition of journal Cell. These researchers have been able to create a test which will show if a person has become infected by the Zika virus. The test is portable, and this makes it possible to conduct tests in areas far away from laboratories or hospitals. This is an important consideration, because currently, diagnosing the Zika virus can only be conducted in clinical laboratories set up with trained laboratory technicians and special diagnostic equipment. This level of testing is most often only available in urban areas. People in rural areas are not able to take advantage of the tests available due to the distances involved.
One important aspect of this test is that it detected the virus rapidly in blood samples from monkeys already infected with the virus. Another crucial element of the test is that it is designed to be embedded in paper. The paper is freeze-dried, which makes it possible to transport it without any refrigeration. The cost per patient is said to be less than $1. Even better, the results are available within just a few hours.
Keith Pardee, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Toronto, worked to develop the test with his colleague James Collins. The Wyss Institute was where the two developed this ground breaking testing method. Pardee has noted that the two men view their technological development as proving a concept. Their goal is to find resources so that their paper test can be deployed to health responders around the world.
In truth, Pardee has been clear that scientists came together from different institutions to work as a group in order to develop the Zika virus test as rapidly as they could. The Americas are experiencing a Zika epidemic that has scientists concerned. Though the virus is currently contained to specific areas in South America, it could spread to other more densely populated urban areas worldwide. Pardee explained that not only is the under $1 cost very low, the portable test has a very short turn-around time for producing results. It is easy to administer, because it will use urine, saliva, or blood to probe patient’s samples for the distinctive Zika diagnostic sequence.
To explain it simply, a paper the size of a postage stamp is embedded with RNA sensors that are cell-based. These sensors detect the unique genome sequence of the Zika virus. It only takes a blood sample placed on the test paper to enable the test to work. The RNA, which is ribonucleic acid, is part of every cell. Its job is to carry instructions from DNA, which controls proteins synthesis. Because the RNA sensors are embedded in paper, it is possible to rehydrate that same paper that holds the sample. If the paper turns yellow, the correct Zika sequence is present. If the paper turns purple, it is not.
The genius of this particular test is that it can be programmed to detect other disease causing microbes, including Ebol or a simple seasonal flu. Similar tests could gather quick results in many other medical settings. Testing for the Zika virus would provide rapid results to diagnose quickly. It would reduce the effects of the infection, because patients could be identified and treated earlier. It also could reduce the overall effects of the infection, when detected properly and therefore, treated properly. The product would allow governments to track and control outbreaks from spreading.
The testing device has three components:
- An Amplifier- this amplifies the genetic sequence in the patient’s sample to see if the virus is actually present
- A Sensor- a toe hold switch can recognize is the sequence present is actually the Zika virus
- Using the test allows scientist to determine what strain of virus it is, whether African or American
Pardee has indicated that the private sector is showing interest in creating a commercial test, but the researchers are also looking for government partnerships so that the product can be developed. His work in synthetic biology leads him to predict that many months would pass before any commercial test could be available. The best scenario for this test would be to help individuals realize that they have been infected so that they could more quickly find treatment. Pardee also noted that a secondary, yet crucial benefit would be to control further spread of the virus.
Zika’s main danger is that it has the ability to cause underdeveloped brains and undersized heads in infants born to mothers who were infected during their pregnancies. Children and adults have developed neurological disorders, including the paralyzing condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome. Researcher Collins indicated that the test’s low cost and minimal amount of necessary equipment also make it useful for monitoring large populations to gauge a current outbreak. His hope was that the World Health Organization and others would have the information needed to move before an outbreak happened, to contain it more efficiently and quickly, with the goal of saving lives.
Earlier in 2016, Zika virus was declared a public health emergency at the international level of concern by the World Health Organization. Symptoms are mild and include conjunctivitis, fever, joint pain, and rash. Some strains however, demonstrated linkages to birth defects, fetal microcephaly, and other neurological disorders. The illness is borne by mosquitoes. It is expected that as the weather warms, the illness will expand to new areas and even new countries. If the tests can be put into use, the government will not be overburdened by increasing Zika virus illness and related problems.