Wyss scientists develop paper-based test for Zika as outbreaks take their toll

Scientists at Harvard's Wyss Institute are developing a low-cost paper-based test for Zika that changes colors to indicate the presence of the virus.--Courtesy of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University

As the Zika epidemic rages on, scientists are looking for new diagnostics that can quickly and inexpensively monitor outbreaks. Now researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering are developing a low-cost test that uses small paper discs to rapidly pinpoint the virus.

The system uses DNA amplification, Zika detection and CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing mechanism, to distinguish Zika from other viruses such as dengue. Scientists put a drop of a blood sample on freeze-dried paper discs. The discs then change color to show a positive result for Zika, similar to a home pregnancy test, the researchers said in a statement. Purple means the sample is infected, and yellow means the sample is free of the virus. 

As a third step, scientists run a sample with another set of color-changing paper discs to distinguish the virus' strain. Researchers recently published their findings in the journal Cell.

"The growing global health crisis caused by the Zika virus propelled us to leverage novel technologies we have developed in the lab and use them to create a workflow that could diagnose a patient with Zika, in the field, within two to three hours," James Collins, lead author on the study and a synthetic biologist at the Wyss Institute, said in a statement.

The team sees big potential for their test. Researchers have already tested the paper-based test using blood samples from monkeys infected with Zika and also with lab samples. The diagnostic could eventually be deployed in the field to screen for viruses such as Zika and West Nile using blood, urine or saliva samples, scientists said.  

"In response to an emerging outbreak, we envision a custom-tailored diagnostic system could be ready for use within one week's time," Collins said. "We are currently pursuing multiple opportunities to secure private and public funding in order to commercialize this diagnostic system and make it available to the world's health responders."

- read the statement
- see the journal abstract