This new testing strip can detect Ebola, thanks to jellyfish

Scientists have developed a new testing strip that uses synthetic DNA strands (plus a protein from jellyfish) to accurately identify Ebola.

As New Scientist reports, Jim Collins from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and his team have made small paper rectangles printed with sequences of DNA and then freeze-dried. When liquid is added, the DNA is activated and the paper changes colour if a particular virus is present. The protein that makes jellyfish glow is used to make this change visible and the test strip can be programmed to change to different colours for different disease markers.

The sophisticated little strip can test for up to 24 markers of different viruses, and it’s been used to not only test for Ebola but to successfully differentiate between separate strains. It works in just 30 minutes, similar to existing test equipment, but at just $21(£13) to make, it’s a lot cheaper. The cost could be reduced further by labs manufacturing their own synthetic DNA, making it a cheap and easy-to-transport option for rural areas and the developing world.

So far it’s only been used in the lab, so the researchers don’t know if it will work in the field, but they’re working to refine the test so it’s even more sensitive, to reduce the chances of false positives and (more importantly) false negatives. But it certainly seems to have potential, and could be used for all kinds of diseases – Collins and his team are also experimenting with tests that can detect antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

In future, this type of colour-changing circuit could even be printed onto medical professionals’ uniforms to warn them of contact with superbugs or infectious diseases, to help stop their spread. ‘It’s opening up a whole generation of new technologies for diagnosis,’ says Collins.

Image credit: Harvard’s Wyss Institute.

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