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Researchers hope to diagnose deadly Ebola virus with nanotech

Sharon Gaudin | Oct. 2, 2014
With more than 6,500 cases of the Ebola virus in West Africa, 3,000 deaths and now one confirmed case here in the United States, scientists are trying to find a way to detect the deadly virus more quickly, cheaply and easily.

With more than 6,500 cases of the Ebola virus in West Africa, 3,000 deaths and now one confirmed case here in the United States, scientists are trying to find a way to detect the deadly virus more quickly, cheaply and easily.

And they're increasingly using nanotechnology to do it.

A team of researchers at Boston University's College of Engineering and its School of Medicine has been working for the past five years to develop a portable device that uses a silicon chip to diagnose a patient with Ebola, or other hemorrhagic fever diseases like the Marburg virus or Lassa Fever.

What's potentially important about this diagnostic device is that it could easily be used in remote areas with limited electrical and medical resources.

"What motivates us is that there are some really good tests to diagnose these diseases but none of these tests are easily transported where they are needed," said John H. Connor, an associate professor in BU's Department of Microbiology and a virologist on the research team. "They have to fly in heavy, electricity-requiring machines that require specialized training and special ingredients to make the diagnostics work properly. They're expensive, time intensive and, most importantly, they're pretty much locked to a clinical lab."

That's a problem for countries like Liberia, which has suffered more than 3,400 cases of Ebola and more than 1,800 deaths in this outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that the Ebola virus, once known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is one of the world's most virulent diseases, with a fatality rate of approximately 90%. Spread by direct contact with the blood, fluids and tissues of infected animals or people, authorities have attempted to contain the outbreak, which began in Guinea and has spread to other countries, including Liberia and Nigeria, which have both declared health emergencies because of it.

Liberia, for example, simply doesn't have the resources to dot the countryside with well-equipped, high-tech clinics that can run traditional diagnostic machines.

Connor said his research team, which includes scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch, are even more focused after learning that there's a patient in the U.S. with Ebola. But, he said, people around the world have been suffering from hemorrhagic fever diseases for a long time and that has motivated them all along.

"We would love to be able to provide technology where it could be taken out from the clinical lab and provide it at the point of care, the point of need," he added. "The number of problems that face diagnosis and care are minimized in the United States but they're huge overseas." Connor explained that the researchers put antibodies on a silicon chip. The antibodies, a naturally occurring protein used by the immune system to identify and attack viruses and bacteria, can grab onto the Ebola virus.

 

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