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CRISPR boosts cheap Zika test

16 May 2016

By Sarah Gregory

Appeared in BioNews 851

Researchers have developed a quick and cheap 'paper-based' test that uses CRISPR to detect the Zika virus.

The test has successfully detected the virus in an infected macaque monkey, and the researchers say they expect a commercially available test for humans to be available 'within a matter of months'.

'The diagnostic platform … has provided a high-performing, low-cost tool that can work in remote locations,' said Dr Keith Pardee of the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, who is lead author of the study. He says that the test 'can be read out on a piece of paper no larger than a postage stamp'.

The Zika virus has been spreading rapidly throughout the Americas, leading to birth defects in the children of infected mothers. But current diagnostic tests are slow, expensive and require expertise to perform. They are also not effective in distinguishing the Zika virus from other similar viruses that may be present.

The research team adapted a technique first developed in 2014 as part of an Ebola diagnostic test. Biologically engineered, cell-free gene networks are embedded into paper that changes colour in the presence of a target RNA sequence. Their study, published in Cell, shows that the test not only detects the Zika virus, but can also differentiate between Zika and related viruses common in the geographical area, such as Dengue fever.

The inclusion of a genome-editing tool CRISPR also means that the test can distinguish different strains of the virus itself. Variations in the nature of the virus can lead to variation in symptoms. The strain from Brazil, for example, is closely linked to higher incidences of fetal microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare immunological disorder. Although it has not yet been tested on human patients, the test successfully detected low levels of the virus in the plasma of an infected macaque.

The researchers say that the paper-based test costs less than a dollar, is simple to use and produces quick results. 'We [now] have a system that could be widely distributed and used in the field with low cost and very few resources,' said Professor James Collins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, who led the study.

Professor Collins now hopes to develop this new low-cost technology for testing in humans. 'Here we've done a nice proof-of-principle demonstration, but more work and additional testing would be needed to ensure safety and efficacy. We're not far off.'

It is also anticipated that the technique could be adapted for widespread use in other large outbreaks of illness.

MIT Technology Review | 06 May 2016
GEN News | 09 May 2016
The Scientist | 09 May 2016
Cell | 06 May 2016
Eurekalert (press release) | 06 May 2016


24 April 2017 - by Jennifer Willows and Annabel Slater 
A new highly sensitive diagnostic system for diseases has been adapted from CRISPR...
22 August 2016 - by Arit Udoh 
The Zika virus has been detected in the semen of a man six months after the onset of infection...
27 June 2016 - by Dr Lanay Griessner 
Researchers have pinpointed a gene that, if blocked, may stop Zika and other related viruses in their tracks...
27 June 2016 - by Rachel Reeves 
The first in-human use of the genome-editing technology CRISPR has been approved by a US federal safety board...
13 June 2016 - by Ayala Ochert 
British athlete Greg Rutherford has frozen a sample of his sperm ahead of the Rio Olympics this summer because of concern over the Zika virus...

25 April 2016 - by Dr Özge Özkaya 
Scientists have fine tuned the genome-editing tool CRISPR so that it can now edit a single 'letter' of DNA...
11 April 2016 - by James Brooks 
Scientists testing whether the CRISPR genome-editing technique could effectively kill HIV in infected cells have found that, while the approach works in most cases, it can also cement the virus's presence...
29 February 2016 - by Ryan Ross 
The California-based genome-sequencing company Illumina has accused UK rival Oxford Nanopore Technologies of violating its intellectual property rights...
22 February 2016 - by Ayala Ochert 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is recommending that people returning from Zika-virus prone areas should not try to conceive naturally, donate eggs or sperm, or proceed with fertility treatment for 28 days...

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