What if there were a simple disease detection kit that only needed a drop of blood or saliva? What if this kit was small enough to carry in your pocket? What if this detector was just a piece of paper that could quickly test for illnesses, such as Ebola?
Now, thanks to scientists at Harvard University's Wyss Institute, such a detection kit may soon exist. These researchers have successfully created a prototype paper test that can detect various Ebola strains.
What might be most impressive about the scientists' work, though, is that they made the test in just 12 hours and for only about $20. Not only that, but the test offered results in just 30 minutes.
That's no small feat considering the technology behind the test. The team used synthetic versions of proteins, molecules, amino acids, ribosomes and enzymes and printed DNA sequences on paper. This created circuits that acted like computer programs, instructed to go through a variety of sequences to test for disease.
The paper's material is freeze-dried, making it easily storable at room temperature. The test is ready to use after adding water to it. In the case of the prototype, the paper changes color when detecting a strain of Ebola.
Presently, the prototype test can distinguish between the Zaire strain of Ebola— the one responsible for the current epidemic in west Africa— and a synthetic strain.
The test is also so simple that those without knowledge of synthetic biology can use it.
"We've harnessed the genetic machinery of cells and embedded them in the fiber matrix of paper, which can then be freeze-dried for storage and transport - we can now take synthetic biology out of the lab and use it anywhere to better understand our health and the environment," says Wyss Staff Scientist Keith Pardee, Ph.D.
Considering that current Ebola blood tests need expensive equipment, with results taking days, this paper diagnostic tool could revolutionize how we deal with epidemics like the one west Africa is now facing. Because it's inexpensive and doesn't require a PhD to understand, not to mention that it operates at room temperature, it's good for use in the field and in countries with little access to electricity and high-tech medical equipment.
The Wyss team also created other tests that detect antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The test can also be printed on fabric, which could give medical personnel a way to quickly know if they've been infected with any diseases.
At the moment, though, the new paper test is not ready for an epidemic like the one in west Africa. The prototype is just that: a prototype. Further testing is obviously needed.
"Potentially, it's wonderful, but it's one thing to do it in the lab and quite another to manufacture it up to the standards required for it to work in real situations," says Ruth McNerney of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.