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New diagnostic tool could make detecting Zika cheap and easy

A new diagnostic tool could make detecting Zika infection in patients much easier and cheaper in remote areas of Latin and Central America. The new technology was developed by several universities, including MIT, Harvard, University of Toronto, and Cornell University, and it will be presented tomorrow at the 68th AACC Annual Scientific Meeting & Clinical Lab Expo in Philadelphia.

Though several diagnostics tools already exist to detect the virus, the new tool does stand out for how portable and cheap it is. The diagnostic test, which was described in a study published in May in the journal Cell, allows medical professionals to test a sample of saliva, urine, or blood. The device can then analyze the samples to detect whether the Zika genome is present, indicating that a person is infected. If the virus is detected, a paper disc with synthetic biomolecular sensors changes color.

The new tool allows a very precise diagnostic technique to be taken from specialized labs, usually available in big cities, and brought to more remote and rural areas. It’s also more accurate than diagnostic tools that search a patient’s blood for the antibodies made to fight Zika, indicating that a person is infected. With these diagnostics tools, if a patient was previously infected with the dengue virus, it could create false positives.

The results with the new portable device could be available within two to three hours, for $1 a test. Because the paper-based diagnostic test can be freeze-dried, it can be stored and transported without problems. It can also detect all the global strains of the Zika virus and differentiate among the African, Asian, and American strains. The researchers are now raising funds to begin a field trial of the device in Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil, but the field trial won’t begin for at least another two months. They plan to test it on “several thousand patients,” says Keith Pardee, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, who worked on the research.

“We could design sensors for really any pathogen.”

If deployed in the field, the new tool could help medical professionals detect infected patients more quickly. The same technology could be used in the future to detect the genomes of other pathogens like Ebola, and even detect antibiotic resistance or HIV. “In principle, we could design sensors for really any pathogen, or even say the detection of mutations related to cancer — anything that is coded into DNA or RNA.”


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