A Turkish Scientist’s Invention Could be the Solution for Ebola Diagnostics

by Bahri Karacay

Ebola epidemic started in West Africa, and now seems to be spreading to other countries including the United States. Containment of the disease is vital for stopping its spread. However, with the current diagnostic tools it takes about two to three days from sample collection to diagnostics. In many cases the latency in diagnostics is due to the time it takes for the sample transport to the central laboratory.  Because of lack of a diagnostic device that can perform in the field, the samples have to be shipped to specialized laboratories equipped with expensive and sophisticated laboratory equipment, and have to be analyzed  by highly trained technicians.  As a result, diagnosing the disease when a patient is first seen, became one of the big problems in preventing the spread of Ebola.
One potential solution to this problem may come from the laboratory of a TASSA board member, Selim Ünlü at  Boston University.

Ünlü is a professor of biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and materials science and engineering at Boston University. His team together with their collaborators developed a technology, called Single Particle Interferometric Imaging Sensor or SP-IRIS, to detect and size nanoparticles such as viruses. It is an optical biosensing platform.  During the early development  in 2010, the group was successful in sizing individual  H1N1 viruses  . After this success, Ünlü’s group focused on making their system compact and portable for point of care applications.  In collaboration with John H. Connor of Department of Microbiology, School of Medicine of Boston University, Ünlü’s group developed a platform that could simultaneously detect multiple viruses including three of the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever  viruses: Ebola, Marburg and Lassa Viruses in serum and blood samples.

SP-IRIS was mentioned as a promising new technology by Forbes Magazine in a recent article arguing that a rapid test would be game-changing for Ebola containment.  It detects virus particles digitally which provides higher sensitivities compared to other available rapid diagnostic tests.  "SP-IRIS does not require complex sample handling and laboratory environment, which makes it ideal for using in resource-limited countries. This means that Ebola can be detected in less than an hour or 1-to-3 days quicker without the need of sending the samples to central laboratories which would greatly help containing the virus" says Ünlü.

“A former member of our lab started a company, NexGen Arrays, to commercialize SP-IRIS as a diagnostic tool” says Elif Seymour, a biomedical engineering PhD student working with  Ünlü.  “SP-IRIS has the potential to be used as a highly sensitive, rapid diagnostic tool that provides sample-to-answer results in about an hour with minimal sample preparation.”

SP-IRIS in now being tested in a Biosafety Level-4 Lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) with real Ebola, Marburg and Lassa viruses. “Once the development is complete, the field-ready instrument will be easy to operate, compact and portable” says Ünlü .