A fast, portable test for Zika virus could be in the cards, according to a new study published in Cell, which details how a prototype device was able to accurately detect the virus in the blood and saliva of infected monkeys.

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Researchers say their prototype portable Zika test (pictured) effectively identified the virus in the blood and saliva of monkeys.
Image credit: James Collins et al.

Zika virus is primarily spread to humans through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito.

Symptoms of the virus are normally mild, and they commonly include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis. Zika is rarely life-threatening, and the vast majority of people who become infected do not get sick enough to warrant hospitalization.

However, following large outbreaks of Zika virus in French Polynesia in 2013 and in Brazil last year, studies have increasingly suggested a link between infection during pregnancy and microcephaly.

Microcephaly is a birth defect in which a baby has a smaller-than-normal head, usually because the brain has not developed properly.

Earlier this month, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that Zika virus does cause microcephaly and other birth defects, after researchers conducted an in-depth review of the evidence to date.

Needless to say, such an association is worrying, and it highlights the need to identify better diagnostic and preventive techniques for Zika virus.

Novel test could be used to 'contain outbreaks, save lives'

In the new study, co-author James Collins, of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University in Boston, MA, and colleagues detail the development of a test that can detect low concentrations of Zika virus in blood or saliva.

In a previous study published in 2014, the team reported on the development of a paper-based test incorporating sensors that can detect ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules, including those that are present in Ebola and other viruses.

The latest research builds on that development; the team combined RNA molecule detection with a CRISPR-based module to create a freeze-dried, paper-based diagnostic test for Zika virus.

The test alerts the user to the presence of Zika virus in a biological sample by changing color.

The researchers applied a prototype of the test to the blood and saliva of monkeys infected with Zika and found it was effective at detecting the virus, even at low concentrations.

The authors note that this study only provides proof of concept for the novel diagnostic technique, but they believe that with the right resources, the test could be ready for clinical or laboratory use within months.

They say the test could overcome some of the problems with current diagnostic methods for Zika, such as misidentification of viruses that are closely related to Zika, and a lack of equipment to screen for the virus in urban areas that are far away from a hospital.

And the test's diagnostic ability is not limited to Zika. It could be applied to a number of other viruses.

"The test's low cost and minimal equipment also means that it can be used for monitoring the spread of illnesses across large populations of people, enabling us to monitor the pathogen as an outbreak is occurring.

NGOs [non-governmental organizations] like the World Health Organization (WHO) can use this information to get ahead of an outbreak in order to contain it and save lives."

James Collins

Learn about how Zika virus attacks the fetal brain to cause microcephaly.