Researchers hope to diagnose the deadly Ebola virus which is ravaging West Africa using a prototype of a device that detects the disease by shining light of viral nanoparticles on silicon.
The current outbreak of the virus is unprecedented and this week, it was announced that the death toll has surpassed 3,300. As the disease spreads, scientists are trying to find a way to detect the pathogen cheaply and quickly.
Researchers at Boston University's College of Engineering and its School of Medicine have been working on a nanotechnology device, which can diagnose Ebola and Lassa Fever, an acute viral haemorrhagic fever first described in 1969 in Nigeria.
Most significantly, the device can be used in areas with limited electrical and medical resources, such is the case in Ebola-stricken communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
Speaking to Computerworld researcher John H. Connor, a virologist at BU, said: "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.
"They have to fly in heavy, electricity-requiring machines that require specialized training and special ingredients to make the diagnostics work properly," he added. "They're expensive, time intensive and, most importantly, they're pretty much locked to a clinical lab."
A recent report by the International Development Committee, the parliamentary watchdog for the UK government's Department for International Development, blamed inadequate healthcare infrastructure in both Liberia and Sierra Leone for the rapid spread of the disease in these states.
"The horrific Ebola outbreak has spread for many reasons, but the weakness of health systems has played a part," the report read.
Both countries lack the resources to pepper the countryside with high-tech clinics that can operate traditional diagnostic tests for the virus.
Connor said that the research is designed to take diagnoses from the laboratory to the field: "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."
For the device, researchers put antibodies, a naturally occurring protein found in the immune system to identify and attack the virus, on a silicon chip.
A patient's blood is then distributed over the chip, which is detected by the antibodies. Researchers can then tell if the virus is present by using a multi-coloured LED equipment to shine light on the viral nanoparticles.
"When we bounce the light off it, you see a spectrum that changes when there's a virus particle present," Connor told Computerworld.
The spectrum acts as a distinct signal which relays the specific size and shape of each nanoparticle.
"The spectrum changes based on the virus. It's large enough for us to very easily see," he explained.
With adequate funding, the device could be used within six months, but Connor said it would likely be used in two years.