Researchers from MIT claim to have developed an easy-to-use blood test that can be applied in the field, allowing for the screening of multiple diseases at once. The test is said to provide results in around 10 minutes, and could be instrumental in stopping the epidemic spread of fatal diseases such as Ebola.
Over the past year, Ebola has spread from country to country in the African continent, claiming tens of thousands of lives. One of the factors that made it possible for the virus to spread to its current pandemic level is the relatively inefficient method we have of diagnosing and ultimately treating the disease.
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Currently, medical practitioners must send a sample of the patient's blood to a laboratory, where it's subjected to advanced medical screening techniques in order to detect the virus. This process can take days, by which time the infected patient may be circulating in the hospital, or even in the population at large, spreading the virus.
This cumbersome method is pushed to breaking point when you factor in the population of the affected countries, and the third world medical infrastructure that by its nature, can only provide limited access to the medical facilities capable of carrying out the tests.
MIT's new test may be able to circumvent the damaging limitations of the current system, offering a fast, relatively low-tech and potentially widely available alternative. The new method takes the form of a paper strip test, and uses a lateral flow technology not dissimilar to that used in a pregnancy test.
"If you’re in a situation in the field with no power and no special technologies, if you want to know if a patient has Ebola, this test can tell you very quickly that you might not want to put that patient in a waiting room with other people who might not be infected," states Lee Gehrke, professor in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and professor of microbiology and immunology at Harvard Medical School. "That initial triage can be very important from a public health standpoint, and there could be a follow-up test later with PCR or something to confirm."
To create an easy-to-read, low-tech test for medics in the field, the lateral flow technology was combined with a technique called multiplexing, which makes use of multi-colored nanoparticles to screen for numerous pathogens at once. When a patient's blood is applied to the test, triangular silver nanoparticles turn the strip a predefined color when they come in to contact with viral proteins, thus indicating the presence of a disease.
Currently, the researchers have created red, green and orange nanoparticles, and respectively linked them to the respective antibodies that recognize Ebola, dengue fever and yellow fever. Another strength of the new method is the potential ability to tailor the strip to detect any number of pathogens simply by linking the colored nanoparticles to a different antibody.
The next step for the team will be to seek FDA approval prior to use in the field, in preparation for which, the researchers are testing the method on engineered viral proteins and blood samples from infected animals.