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Mobile testing for Ebola gains renewed urgency as outbreak grows

Matt Hamblen | Aug. 14, 2014
PositiveID has a handheld prototype device that could be ready for use within two years.

Developing a quick, mobile test to detect the presence of the deadly Ebola virus in a patient has become a priority for medical technologists.

Deaths from the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa have soared above 1,000. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak an international public health emergency last week and outlined ways to minimize the spread of the virus through airports and other travel pathways.

One small company, PositiveID of Delray Beach, Fla., has developed a prototype device for testing for Ebola and other viruses and bio-threats, relying largely upon millions in federal dollars to fund its research. The device looks like a mini-clamshell laptop. When closed, it is somewhat smaller in width and length than the iPad mini, but much thicker -- about 2-inches thick. It weighs about 2 pounds.

Called the Firefly DX, it can be used to test a person's blood or other body fluid sample for the presence of Ebola and other diseases at an airport screening area or a remote field location within 10 to 15 minutes.

By comparison, existing lab tests might take two to four hours, once a patient's sample has actually reached a lab, something that can take days in some remote regions.

"The best way to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus throughout the world is to detect is as early and quickly as possible, at the source, and we believe our Firefly system will give us that ability," PositiveID CEO William Caragol said in a statement.

The prototype could take two more years of refinement before being put into actual use, according to PositiveID. But the time to actual third-party testing of a finished device could be cut to just over a year, assuming new federal funding now being sought is approved, PostiveID President Lyle Probst said in an interview.

The entire Firefly system, developed in a Pleasanton, Calif. lab, could ultimately cost $3,000 to $5,000 and includes one main laptop device, a battery charger and a carrying case. In addition, each test per patient could cost $25. If purchased in large numbers, the system's price could drop to $1,000 and each test per patient could drop to as low as $5, Probst said.

The Firefly system relies on what is called real-time "polymerase chain reaction chemistry" to produce the molecular diagnostic results. To run a test, a sample of a patient's blood or other body fluid is placed into a small hole in the center of a one-use cartridge that fits inside the mini-laptop unit, which is then closed. The testing process is started by simply pressing a large button on the exterior.

KTVU in San Francisco posted an online video report showing how the device works.


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