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How MIT Is Helping to Stop the Zika Virus' Spread

MIT, Harvard University, and other research institutions are paving the way for a practical and cost effective Zika diagnostic tool for widespread use.

Kristopher Sturgis

MIT Zika Detect
The black cartridge contains the paper-based Zika diagnostic test. (Photo courtesy of MIT)

A new diagnostic test consists of a black cartridge containing a paper that can diagnose the Zika virus within just a few hours, according to the MIT researchers who created it.

The new test was designed to help doctors and clinicians distinguish Zika from the dengue virus, another mosquito-borne virus that can lead to dengue fever, a separate condition from Zika that carries many similar symptoms. The device was created by a research team led by James Collins, a professor of medical engineering and science at MIT.

Researchers from Harvard University, University of Toronto, Arizona State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Boston University, Cornell University, and Addgene collaborated on the project.

The current testing system in place for Zika is rather cumbersome, as patients are typically diagnosed by testing to see if they have antibodies against Zika in their bloodstream. Unfortunately this method doesn't differentiate between the presence of Zika and the dengue virus, leaving many patients unclear on their diagnosis.

Patients can also be tested for pieces of the viral genome in their blood sample through the use of a test known as a polymerase chain reaction, however both methods can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to produce test results.

This new device was initially inspired by a similar test Collins and his team developed to detect and diagnose the Ebola virus during the 2014 outbreak. His team was able to demonstrate that they could develop synthetic gene networks embedded onto paper that could be programmed to detect specific genetic sequences that cause the paper to change color.

Once the Zika virus began to gain traction, Collins and his team immediately explored applying the same principles from their paper ebola test to a similar device that could detect and diagnose the Zika virus--which has begun to spread to parts of North America.

"In a small number of weeks, we developed and validated a relatively rapid, inexpensive Zika diagnostic platform," Collins said in an MIT news release. "We have a system that could be widely distributed and used in the field with low cost and very few resources."

Elsewhere, scientists from around the world look to respond to the Zika outbreak, which the world health organization has declared as an international emergency. Earlier this year news emerged of scientists using gene modification to respond to the outbreak, which essentially relies on releasing genetically-modified mosquitos that, when they mate, will pass on a self-limiting gene that should reduce the number of mosquitos carrying the virus.

In the meantime, developing drugs that can respond to the zika virus remains a high priority for health officials around the world. Mauro Martins Teixeira, head of the immunopharmacology laboratory at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, spoke earlier this week at a Zika conference at Emory University about the process of testing older drugs to see if they can fight the infection. Teixeira says that virtually every researcher working with antiviral drugs is testing them against the Zika virus in the hopes of providing a drug therapy for those infected.

While the search for Zika treatments remains paramount, Collins and his group hope that their new improved diagnostic device can help make a difference, specifically in countries where resources are low. Although the device is still in the early stages of development, the results so far have been promising.

"We've done a nice proof-of-principle demonstration, but more work and additional testing would be needed to ensure safety and efficacy before actual deployment," he said. "We're not far off." 

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at MD&M East, June 14-15, 2016 in New York City.

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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