MIT Developed a Paper-Based Test That Can Detect the Zika Virus

May 9, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

A paper-based tool for diagnosing Zika
Photo credit: MIT

The inexpensive test is capable of detecting the virus within a few hours!

A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from several North American universities have developed a paper-based test that can diagnose Zika virus within a few hours.

SEE ALSO: Scientists in Brazil Have Detected Zika in Monkeys

The current Zika epidemic began in Brazil in early 2015 and has been linked to a birth defect known as microcephaly. When patients become infected with the virus, they normally do not experience any immediate symptoms, and once symptoms do appear, they sometimes lead to a misdiagnosis because of similarities to two other virus infections, chikungunya and dengue. This alters which types of screening tests can be used to detect the infection and can cause delays in patient care.

There are currently two common methods of testing for Zika. The first test looks for traces of antibodies against the virus in the bloodstream of patients. Alternatively, a test known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can be done which will look for any remnants of the viral genome particles in the patient’s blood. The downfall with these tests is that they can take many days to complete before results are known. Additionally, the antibody test cannot not distinguish between Zika and the related Dengue virus.

Lee Gehrke, a professor at MIT and an author of the paper, stated in a press release, “One of the key problems in the field is being able to distinguish what these patients have in areas where these viruses are co-circulating,”

SEE ALSO: MIT Developed an Implantable Device to Help Target Pancreatic Cancers

This new paper-based technology may hold the solution. The test was built using technology from earlier work by a research team led by James Collins. They developed a detection test for Ebola virus back in 2014 using synthetic gene networks embedded into small discs of paper. The gene networks were pre-programmed to detect specific genetic sequences that made the paper discs change color.

When Collins and his team learned about the Zika outbreak, they decided to adapt their previous test so that it could be used to screen for the Zika genome instead.

“In a small number of weeks, we developed and validated a relatively rapid, inexpensive Zika diagnostic platform,” says Collins.

The newly developed detection test could have practical widespread usage in the medical field. The test will be able to distinguish the Zika virus from the very similar dengue virus, it can be stored at room temperatures, it’s very simple to use, inexpensive, and yields results within a few hours.

“What’s really exciting here is you can leverage all this expertise that synthetic biologists are gaining in constructing genetic networks and use it in a real-world application that is important and can potentially transform how we do diagnostics,” says Julius Lucks, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell University who was not involved in the research.

The researchers hope that the same technological approach they used in their paper-based Zika test might be used in other detecting tests for emerging virus in the future. It will result in faster and easier testing methods, which could potentially save lives.

The results of their research were published in the journal Cell.

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