Researchers at a government lab have developed a minimally invasive test for Ebola that could cut the time it takes to diagnose cases of the lethal virus from days and hours to minutes or even seconds, International Business Times has learned. The Department of Energy, which invented the procedure at its Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee, is now scrambling to find a partner to commercialize the technology.
The development comes amid fears that the Ebola virus may spread in the U.S. after the first cases appeared in Dallas in the past week. On Friday, President Obama named former vice presidential chief of staff Ron Klain as the nation’s first “Ebola czar.”
In a solicitation-for-contractors document, DOE describes its test as a “rapid, portable viral diagnostic for RNA viruses,” including, specifically, Ebola hemorrhagic fever. RNA viruses are made from genetic material comprising ribonucleic acid. In addition to Ebola, the DOE said the test can quickly detect Hanta, Dengue, West Nile and several other exotic viruses.
DOE posted its solicitation late Wednesday to a federal contracting database. A public records search showed that as of Friday one contractor had expressed interest: Healtheon Inc., of New Orleans, which manufacturers a range of diagnostic tools. Healtheon president Jasmeet Walia did not immediately respond to a request for more information.
A DOE spokesperson said the agency has been directed to refer all calls related to Ebola to the National Security Council. NSC officials did not immediately return phone calls.
In its solicitation, the DOE said rapid diagnostics “are critical elements of an effective response to viral outbreaks, but are limited by both available technology and implementation. ORNL researchers have developed a diagnostic for active, acute viral infections using a highly fieldable, and nearly reagentless system.”
A reagentless system would not require blood samples or other bodily fluids from suspected Ebola sufferers to be transported to a lab to be mixed with other chemicals.
An expert who viewed DOE patent documents on behalf of International Business Times said the technology appears to be a legitimate breakthrough. Dr. Amar Safdar, director for Transplant Infectious Diseases at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, said it could significantly reduce the time and cost of diagnosing new Ebola cases. “It’s cutting-edge,” said Safdar.
Health care facilities currently test for Ebola using a method known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The method requires several steps in a lab to isolate and then amplify the virus’ RNA.
DOE’s technology is “a major improvement on the existing, time-consuming PCR technology,” said Safdar, adding it could be used to conduct on-the-spot screenings at airports and other points of entry. Subjects could be asked to provide a drop of blood or nasal swab, which could then be checked using test strips that change color. “If there is a good, rapid test, then that is extremely desirable,” said Safdar.
Beyond speed, the technology could promote more widespread Ebola testing in developing nations in western Africa, where the current outbreak originated. PCR testing requires access to sophisticated and expensive lab equipment, which is not widely available in the region. Health care workers deployed to the area are in some cases shipping blood samples to Europe for testing.
Safdar cautioned, however, that rapid virus testing may not be as accurate as PCR. Rapid testing for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which has been available for several years, is known to deliver a very small percentage of false positives, though no false negatives. “This may be better at ruling people out than ruling them in,” said Safdar.
Positive results detected through rapid testing should be confirmed in a lab, Safdar added. He said that the DOE’s technology, as is the case with PCR testing, would only work on individuals who are symptomatic. Humans can harbor the Ebola virus for as long as three weeks before showing signs such as severe headaches, diarrhea and vomiting.
The 2014 Ebola outbreak has to date claimed about 4,500 lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. There has been one death in the U.S. Thomas Eric Duncan passed away after traveling from Liberia to a hospital in Dallas, Texas. Two nurses who treated Duncan were infected and are receiving treatment.