New Two-Hour Zika Test Could Be the Key to Preventing Birth Defects

Usually when we're talking Zika, we're talking bad news. It always seems to be expanding or getting more dangerous or harder to prevent, but researchers from MIT just developed a way to identify a Zika-positive person in a matter of hours, and finally, we can count this one as a win.

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The test isn't quite at DIY levels yet, but once it's refined it'll be a process that can be done at almost any lab, which means blood doesn't have to be shipped to the CDC and back. It could shave days or weeks off the diagnostic process, and that time could be critical for identifying outbreaks and potentially preventing dangerous pregnancies and birth defects like microcephaly.

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Even better, the test costs less than $1 to produce and it can be stored at room temperature, which means it'll be cheap and easy to ship all over the world.

Plus, it's really, really simple -- doctors heat and process patients' blood, then apply it to a small yellow dot on a sheet of paper. The dot will turn purple if the patient's RNA is Zika positive, and it'll stay yellow if they're negative.

It's close to foolproof already, but with an extra hour or two, doctors can amplify the amount of RNA in a patient's blood and increase the test's sensitivity one millionfold. They also developed a way to read the test via scanner if the color change isn't definitive enough. Eventually, they're hoping this scanner could tell them how much of the virus is in the sample -- not just whether it's there or not.

So far, the researchers have only tested their method on monkeys because it's difficult for the them to get their hands on human Zika patients, but they're confident it'll work just fine for us, too. They said that with a few more weeks of refinements, the test will be ready to ship out across the world.

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The version they're currently working with can also identify dengue, which looks and feels a lot like Zika, and Ebola. Eventually, the researchers hope to make adaptions that can identify the flu, HIV, Lyme disease, leprosy, and, hopefully, cancer.

So far, they have an encouraging start. Their test should make a positive difference in the Zika world, and with any luck, their work here will translate to wins across the board.

In the meantime, the CDC recommends using DEET-based bug repellent to prevent mosquito bites, and also warns women who are (or are planning to become) pregnant to avoid Africa, southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and any other area affected by the current Zika outbreak.

 

Image via iStock.com/YakobchukOlena

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