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Zika virusA new paper-based test for the Zika virus

By Anne Trafton

Published 12 May 2016

A new paper-based test developed at MIT and other institutions can diagnose Zika virus infection within a few hours. The test, which distinguishes Zika from the very similar dengue virus, can be stored at room temperature and read with a simple electronic reader, making it potentially practical for widespread use.

A new paper-based test developed at MIT and other institutions can diagnose Zika virus infection within a few hours. The test, which distinguishes Zika from the very similar dengue virus, can be stored at room temperature and read with a simple electronic reader, making it potentially practical for widespread use.

“We have a system that could be widely distributed and used in the field with low cost and very few resources,” says James Collins, the Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and the leader of the research team.

An outbreak of the Zika virus that began in Brazil in April 2015 has been linked to a birth defect known as microcephaly. Many infected people experience no symptoms, and when symptoms do appear they are very similar to those of related viruses such as dengue and chikungunya.

Currently, patients are diagnosed by testing whether they have antibodies against Zika in their bloodstream, or by looking for pieces of the viral genome in a patient’s blood sample, using a test known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR). However, these tests can take days or weeks to yield results, and the antibody test cannot discriminate accurately between Zika and dengue.

“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,” says Lee Gehrke, the Hermann L.F. von Helmholtz Professor in IMES and an author of the paper.

Collins, Gehrke, and colleagues from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and other institutions described the new device in the May 6 online edition of Cell. The paper’s lead authors are Melissa Takahashi, an IMES postdoc; Dana Braff, an MIT graduate student; Keith Pardee, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and former Wyss Institute research scientist; Alexander Green, an assistant professor at Arizona State University and former Wyss Institute postdoc; and Guillaume Lambert, a visiting scholar at the Wyss Institute.

Paper-based detection
The new device is based on technology that Collins and colleagues previously developed to detect the Ebola virus. In October 2014, the researchers demonstrated that they could create synthetic gene networks and embed them on small discs of paper. These gene networks can be programmed to detect a particular genetic sequence, which causes the paper to change color.