An inexpensive method for detecting Zika could help slow spread of outbreak


Detecting Zika quickly and inexpensively

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It's been one year since Brazil reported its first case of Zika virus, and five months since Puerto Rico reported the first locally transmitted case. Since then different research teams have been trying to learn more about the virus in an effort to help slow the spread of outbreaks.


What we know so far

In recent months, we've had official confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that Zika virus can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly, in addition to other severe brain defects. The CDC has also confirmed that fetuses and infants infected with Zika before birth have also manifested defects of the eye, hearing deficits and impaired growth.

Although it was believed the only way to contract Zika was via the bite of an infected mosquito, we now also know that the virus can be transmitted sexually.

Determining a way to diagnose Zika quickly, therefore, has become especially high-priority.


Low-cost, paper-based diagnostic system

An international, multi-institutional team of researchers led by synthetic biologist James Collins, PhD, at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, has developed a low-cost, rapid paper-based diagnostic system for strain-specific detection of the Zika virus, with the goal that it could soon be used in the field to screen blood, urine or saliva samples.

"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 two to three hours," said Collins.

In October 2014, Collins' team developed a breakthrough method for embedding synthetic gene networks — which could be used as programmable diagnostics and sensors — on portable, small discs of ordinary paper.

Stirred by the then-ongoing Ebola outbreak in Africa, they demonstrated a proof-of-concept color-changing diagnostic that could screen for Ebola by embedding in paper a novel kind of synthetic biomolecular sensor designed to screen for specific RNA sequences. These RNA sequences can mark not only the genetic signatures of Ebola but also other RNA viruses, including Zika, SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C and West Nile fever.

"The vivid images in the news stemming from the ongoing Zika crisis are heartbreaking," said Keith Pardee, PhD, one of the study's co-first authors and an assistant professor in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at University of Toronto. "We hope a tool like this can help reduce the impact of the outbreak until a vaccine can be developed."


Bracing for future outbreaks

The diagnostic system developed by Collins' team could be tailored to identify a range of pathogens, and is an extremely cost effective diagnostic platform given its paper-based nature. What's more — the method is robust and could be used to quickly respond and develop new diagnostics in the face of emerging outbreaks.

"In response to an emerging outbreak, we envision a custom-tailored diagnostic system could be ready for use within one week's time," said Collins. "We are currently pursuing multiple opportunities to secure private and public funding in order to commercialize this diagnostic system and make it available to the world's health responders."

The team's methods are described in a study published online in the journal Cell.