Scientists working in the field who need to diagnose Ebola face challenging conditions. They have to send samples to labs far away, hope they get there safely, and then wait days for results. But one day soon, this could be a thing of the past, thanks to researchers who are developing a lab in a suitcase that can rapidly detect Ebola virus on the spot.

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Diagnostics-in-a-Suitcase contains all the equipment and reagents necessary to detect the Ebola virus within 15 minutes.
Image credit: Karin Tilch/DPZ.

The Diagnostics-in-a-Suitcase is the brainchild of Dr. Ahmed Abd El Wahed, a scientist in the Unit of Infection Models at the German Primate Center (DPZ) in Göttingen, Germany. It contains all the equipment and reagents necessary to detect the Ebola virus within 15 minutes at the point of need.

Five of the portable labs are about to undergo field trials in Ebola treatment centers in Guinea, one of the West African countries affected by the current Ebola epidemic.

Currently, lab tests for Ebola virus use a technique called real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that looks for the genome signature of the virus in the sample.

Although PCR machines are becoming smaller, they are not suitable for remote locations with no electricity and refrigeration, so Ebola samples have to be transported under controlled conditions to remote labs. Such a method is not only risky - recently a vehicle carrying infected Ebola material was stolen - but introduces delays in an outbreak control process that needs rapid results to be effective.

Suitcase lab uses RPA technology to detect Ebola virus

The Diagnostics-in-a-Suitcase uses a different method to PCR. It uses one based on Recombinase Polymerase Amplification (RPA) - a technology developed by TwistDx.

RPA is as sensitive as PCR but works much faster. Also, because it operates at constant temperature, it doesn't require additional rapid heat-cycling equipment. Plus the reagents used in RPA tests are stable in dried form and can be transported safely without refrigeration.

Another advantage of the suitcase lab is it is powered by onboard solar panels and power packs.

"In remote field hospitals, resources such as electricity and cold storage are often in short supply," says Dr. Wahed.

The idea is the Diagnostics-in-a-Suitcase will enable the rapid detection of Ebola virus not only out in the field but also at other points of need such as airports and quarantine stations.

Suitcase lab 'will contribute to better management during Ebola outbreak'

Dr. Christiane Stahl-Hennig, who heads DPZ's Unit of Infection Models, says:

"The early detection of Ebola infected patients will lead to a more effective virus control since medical staff can identify and isolate confirmed Ebola cases more rapidly. The Diagnostics-in-a-Suitcase will therefore contribute to a better management during the Ebola-outbreak."

The project is funded by the British Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA). It was selected, along with another five projects, from 216 funding applications.

According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report, there have been over 20,000 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases of Ebola virus disease in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with more than 8,000 deaths.

Incidence of Ebola cases have fallen to low levels in Liberia. There are signs they have leveled off in Sierra Leone, but transmission remains intense in the west of the country, notes the UN health agency.

In Guinea, where the suitcase lab is going to be tested, levels of reported Ebola virus disease cases are still up and down, with no identifiable downward trend, and the disease is continuing to spread across the country. The prefecture of Fria - a town situated north of the capital and port city Conakry - has recently reported 2 confirmed cases for the first time.

Meanwhile, for US-bound travelers from neighboring Mali, the US has now lifted Ebola screening. This is because 42 days have elapsed - double the 21-day incubation period of the virus - since the last Ebola infected patient in Mali came into contact with anyone not wearing protective equipment.