It’s safe to say the whole world is concerned if not terrified by the Zika virus. Particularly now that it has been discovered that the virus can be spread by sexual contact by previously infected males for at least 62 days after infection, even if the males never had a clue they were infected. The concern is growing. For the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Zika is endemic, the concern has grown to fear and many may stay away. The prospect of athletes, staff, and guests from around the world all visiting at the same time in an area where the Zika-carrying Aedes mosquitos are prevalent — and where there are already many infected people — seems like a natural environment from which the Zika virus could “go viral” as the attendees travel back to their respective countries.
While it will not be ready before the Olympics, University of Pennsylvania engineers have devised an inexpensive portable test for the Zika virus. The test uses about $2 worth of supplies. It requires a saliva sample from potentially infected person. The sample is inserted in a soda can-sized device that regulates the temperature sufficiently for the 40 minutes it takes for the test to run. If color-changing dye within the test device detects the Zika virus, it turns blue. The test process doesn’t need electricity or highly trained personnel to administer, which is important. The only tests currently approved require expensive lab equipment. For Brazil and many other countries where Zika is prevalent, a test suitable for use in the field is extremely important since fast, accurate diagnosis of potentially infected pregnant women is imperative.
The UPenn engineers eliminated many technologies and methodologies in search of a genetic testing solution that was inexpensive, portable, and easy to administer and read. The end result is a testing technique called RT-LAMP, or reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification. The RT-Lamp test requires samples kept at a specific temperature. The UPenn group designed the test device with a combination of thermos-like insulation and self-containing heating element, and a wax-like substance that absorbs excess heat while the test runs.
Still a proof of concept, the Zika detection test has worked with saliva from the researchers that were “spiked” with Zika virus samples. More sampling and testing are needed ASAP to be sure the mechanism is consistently accurate and reliable. All hands are on deck with this one, report the UPenn scientists, with medical researchers and scientists ready to help in parts of the world where Zika is already endemic.