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Catching Ebola in its Tracks

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The Ebola epidemic of 2014 caused widespread devastation across much of West Africa. In an area with limited healthcare staff and resources, and early symptoms mirroring other diseases such as malaria, accurate diagnosis often came too late for many victims. A simple way to quickly and correctly identify sufferers could have made a vast difference to the rate of infection spread and survival.

Research published recently in Advanced Healthcare Materials1, demonstrates a rapid, low-cost technique, which can effectively detect Ebola virus. We spoke to Mehmet Yigit, Assistant Professor, University at Albany, SUNY, to learn more about this research and its wider implications.

AM: Can you tell us about your lab’s main research directions?

MY: Our lab is interested in development of practical and low-cost methodologies using DNA nanotechnology and metallic nanoparticles for addressing biological, biomedical and environmental challenges. 

AM: What are some of the current challenges of detecting Ebola virus?

MY: Standard Ebola diagnostic methods are often too expensive for resource-limited environments, and current sequencing techniques are not readily adapted to point-of-care applications. They also suffer from the drawbacks of requiring expensive equipment and labor-intensive procedures which limits its on-site applications. Furthermore, current standard Ebola detection methods can take several days for completion, our 4-5 hour long assay is a remarkable improvement over existing methodologies. 

AM: Can you tell us about the nanoparticle detection technology you have recently developed? 

MY: The gold nanoparticles are functionalized with DNA receptors that can bind Ebola biomarkers and trigger a chain reaction. The chain reaction will retain the original wine-red color of the nanoparticles, however if the Ebola biomarkers are absent the chain reaction does not happen and the nanoparticles change their color to purple. Though, to our knowledge, our approach is more sensitive than any other nanoparticle-based colorimetric approaches, we believe that we need an additional amplification step for real sample analysis during sample processing.

AM: What implications does this have for the future of infectious disease diagnostics?

MY: We believe that if we could assemble a kit which can rapidly screen and narrow a population for conventional diagnostics, it would greatly speed up the follow up treatment procedures and take timely actions to avoid spreading of the disease.

AM: Can the technology be used in other disease areas and applications? What future work do you have planned?

MY: We are planning to take this forward for detection of other disease biomarkers for cancer and infectious diseases (Zika), heavy metal ion contaminations (mercury) and engineering circuit components for DNA-based computers. In fact, we have some other published work on these applications.

You can learn more about Dr. Yigit and his work here.

Mehmet Yigit was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Editor for Technology Networks.

1Balcioglu, M., Rana, M., Hizir, M. S., Robertson, N. M., Haque, K., & Yigit, M. V. (2017). Virus Biomarkers: Rapid Visual Screening and Programmable Subtype Classification of Ebola Virus Biomarkers (Adv. Healthcare Mater. 2/2017). Advanced Healthcare Materials, 6(2). doi:10.1002/adhm.201770007