Test could identify ebola in just 30 minutes

Small disc-shaped pieces of tracing paper could soon be used to identify, within as little as 30 minutes, whether somebody has contracted ebola.

Researchers who have developed the technology say DNA print sequences can be embedded in the pieces of paper. They are then freeze-dried before being stored at room temperature. When reactivated in water, they will change colour from yellow to purple if a particular protein from a virus like ebola is detected.

Jim Collins of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University told New Scientist magazine: “We’re extending the concept of litmus paper to biochemical reactions, putting the power of molecular biology onto paper. It’s actually very easy.”

The test identified the strains of ebola for which it was tested within 30 minutes. New Scientist said Collins estimated it cost just $21 (€16.50) to develop the litmus sensor which covered the cost of buying the sequences of DNA that detect the virus.

Mr Collins estimated that each slip of the detection paper could be designed and produced in about a day and would cost as little as a few cent.

The technology still needs to be refined, particularly to be able to detect low levels of molecules and ensure the rates of false positives and negatives meet the standards required for diagnostic tests.

Meanwhile, IBM has developed a system in Sierra Leone which will allow citizens to report ebola-related issues and concerns via SMS or voice calls.

“Tapping supercomputing power and analytics capabilities via the cloud, the system is able to rapidly identify correlations and highlight emerging issues across the entire data set of messages,” the company said.

“As the SMS and voice data are location specific, IBM is able to create opinion-based heat-maps which correlate public sentiment to location information.

“For example, it has already brought to light specific regions with growing numbers of suspected ebola cases which require urgent supplies like soap and electricity, as well as faster response times for body collection and burials. The system has also highlighted issues with the diagnosis of ebola empowering the government to approach the international community to request more testing facilities and equipment.”

The system uses radio broadcasts to encourage people to get in touch and express their opinions. Cambridge University’s Africa’s Voices project has helped to develop a radio engagement model, incorporating questions into public service announcements to elicit feedback from citizens in both English and Krio — one of Sierra Leone’s most widely spoken languages.

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