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This Test Can Find a Single Virus in Urine

The test from the University of Texas has implications for field use in detecting catastrophic viruses like Zika.

Nancy Crotti

human cytomegalovirus University of Texas urine test
The researchers demonstrated their new technique on a the murine cytomegalovirus, which is related to a herpes virus, shown here. (Image courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin)

A pair of University of Texas at Austin graduate students has come up with a test that can rapidly detect a single virus in urine, according to the university.

Although the technique presently works on just one virus, the researchers say it could be adapted to detect a range of viruses that plague humans including Ebola, Zika and HIV, a university statement said. The work was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The ultimate goal is to build a cheap, easy-to-use device to take into the field and measure the presence of a virus like Ebola in people on the spot," said Jeffrey Dick, a chemistry graduate student and co-lead author of the study. "While we are still pretty far from this, this work is a leap in the right direction."

The other co-lead author is Adam Hilterbrand, a microbiology graduate student.

The method is based on electrochemical collisions and provides for a selective, rapid, and sensitive detection technique, according to the journal article. Itis only sensitive to one type of virus, filtering out possible false negatives caused by other viruses or contaminants.

Other commonly used virus-detection methods used with biological samples have drawbacks, according to the researchers. One requires a much higher concentration of viruses, and the other requires samples to be purified to remove contaminants. The new method, however, can be used with urine that comes directly from a person or animal.

The researchers demonstrated their new technique on a the murine cytomegalovirus, which belongs to the same family as the herpes virus. To detect individual viruses, the team placed an electrode that is thinner than a human cell in a sample of mouse urine. They then added molecules made up of enzymes and antibodies that naturally stick to the virus of interest. When all three stick together and collide with the electrode, the collision creates a spike in electric current that can be easily detected.

The researchers acknowledged that their new method needs refinement. For example, the electrodes become less sensitive over time because a host of other naturally occurring compounds stick to them, leaving less surface area for viruses to interact with them. To be practical, the process would also need to be engineered into a compact and rugged device that could operate in a range of real-world environments.

Others have come up with field tests that can detect viruses in blood. MIT, Harvard University, and other research institutions are working on a practical and cost-effective Zika diagnostic tool for widespread use. STMicroelectronics (Geneva) and Clonit, together with with Italy's National Institute for Infectious Disease Lazzaro Spallanzani, announced a portable analyzer to detect the Ebola virus in 2014.

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

Nancy Crotti is a contributor to Qmed.

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