Researchers Develop Cheap & Quick Zika Test

     (CN) — Researchers led by a synthetic biologist at Harvard say they have developed an inexpensive diagnostic test to detect Zika that can deliver results within three hours.
     The test could help stem the spread of the virus and could also be used for other pandemic diseases, according to the team’s findings published Friday by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
     Identifying Zika infections has been difficult, partly because of the lack of quick and reliable tests. Additionally, only 20 percent of infected people experience symptoms.
     The team’s test incorporates a three-step process where the virus is detected, the specific strain is identified and a tool searches a person’s RNA — which regulates and codes/decodes genes — sample to find specific genetic markers. In order to ensure a sufficient sample size, the sample undergoes a series of DNA sequences to trigger replication.
     The RNA samples are then applied to freeze-dried paper discs.
     A single drop of amplified RNA interacts with the freeze-dried components and the paper disc changes color, which indicates whether a person has tested positive or negative for Zika.
     The researchers were led by James Collins, a synthetic biologist at the Wyss Institute.
     Collins and his team had originally developed a similar test amid the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
     Existing diagnostic tools use antibodies to detect viruses and hormones in a patient’s bloodstream. A custom antibody for a specific pathogen can cost between $4,000 and $30,000 and take anywhere from four weeks to six months to create.
     Antibodies for the Zika virus are similar to dengue fever.
     “The growing global health crisis caused by the Zika virus propelled us to leverage novel technologies we have developed in the lab and use them to create a workflow that could diagnose a patient with Zika, in the field, within 2-3 hours,” Collins said in a statement.
     The team’s method could be a valuable resource in the fight against Zika and other future pandemics.
     In 2014, the team was able to develop 24 different Ebola sensors for $21 each and to teach each of them in one day.
     They were also able to mark the genetic signatures of West Nile Virus, SARS, the measles and other RNA viruses.
     “In response to an emerging outbreak, we envision a custom-tailored diagnostic system could be ready for use within one week’s time,” Collins said.
     The tests are fairly cheap and require minimal tools and manpower to use, so they could be particularly helpful in Latin American and Caribbean nations that have limited funds for combating existing Zika outbreaks.
     “These inexpensive paper-based tests also can be easily transported out of the laboratory and distributed virtually anywhere around the world,” Wyss Institute founding director Donald Ingber said. “The potential for applications in health and environmental screening, particularly in low-resource areas, is huge.”

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