News Feature | February 22, 2016

Scientists Collaborate On Point-Of-Care Diagnostic Device For Zika Virus

By Suzanne Hodsden

University of Alberta researchers are seeking to modify a handheld glucometer, such as those used by people with diabetes to monitor their blood sugar levels, into an inexpensive solution to detect the Zika virus.

An interdisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Alberta is working to create a handheld point-of-care device that can economically diagnose the Zika virus. Developers involved in the project are hopeful that the device can be finished within the next six months.

The Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and belongs to the same family of viruses as West Nile and dengue fever. Because the physical symptoms for infected patients are relatively mild, scientists have not been aggressively researching a cure or vaccine; but that changed last May when an outbreak of the virus in Brazil coincided with an enormous spike in reported cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that results in incomplete brain development.

Though scientists have not made a definitive connection between Zika and microcephaly, Bruce Alyward, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) executive director of outbreaks and health emergencies, intends to treat the virus as “guilty until proven innocent,” reported CBC News.

The WHO recently released advisories for pregnant women who may be traveling to South or Central America, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidelines for healthcare workers treating infants with congenital birth defects. Lyle Peterson, director of the CDC’s vector-borne disease division, told the Washington Post that many current diagnostic tests have difficulty distinguishing between dengue fever and Zika.

“In people with previous dengue exposure, there’s no test able to sort that out,” said Peterson.

A team of virologists at the University of Alberta led by Tom Hobman is in the process of developing antibodies for Zika, and is working to ensure that those antibodies do not cross-react with dengue virus proteins. According to Hobman, an effective assay could be finished within the year.

Hobman’s team is currently working with the Ingenuity Lab at the University of Alberta, an interdisciplinary group of scientists of varied expertise, who will work to develop the assay into a point-of-care diagnostic device that is both portable and economical.

“Everybody has ideas of how they can help, so it is nice to be able to draw on this veteran knowledge,” said Hobman, in a University of Alberta news article.

Carlo Montemagno, director of the Ingenuity Lab, is working to create receptor molecules for targets identified by Hobman’s team. To develop highly sensitive and selective biological sensors, Montemagno invited Thomas Thundat, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering, to collaborate on the project.

“We have enormous strength across the campus — what we do is build a financial infrastructure and resource infrastructure that enables us to bring those talents together to work co-operatively and collaboratively to achieve solutions that we couldn’t do individually,” said Montemagno.

If everything moves forward as planned, Montemagno stated that the handheld device could be available within the next six months.