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Associate Professor of Engineering Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli and a team of international researchers have developed a paper-based test for Zika and dengue fever. Image by: Colleen Locke
October 25, 2017

UMass Boston engineer part of Zika test breakthrough

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  • Boston
Paper-based test could be available in a year

Associate Professor of Engineering Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli is holding a tiny piece of paper – so small you can barely see it between her fingers. But its impact could be enormous. The small rectangle is the product of Hamad-Schifferli’s work with a team of international researchers: a paper-based test that can diagnose a Zika or dengue fever infection within 15 minutes.

Zika and dengue fever are closely related, and previous tests have produced a high rate of false positives. And with a per-unit cost of less than $5, the test is also affordable in the developing countries where the diseases are prevalent.

“Traditionally, testing for infections is done by a technique called PCR,” Hamad-Schifferli said. “That requires access to a lab facility. For developing countries, access to these tests are quite limited, and they can take weeks to months to get a result.”

This rapid test works like a dipstick pregnancy test, but the color signifying Zika is a reddish purple. In this short video, Hamad-Schifferli explains how that color appears.

Hamad-Schifferli is one of the 53 coauthors of a paper on this breakthrough, published last month in the journal Science Translational Medicine. In her third year at UMass Boston, Hamad-Schifferli is also a visiting scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. She has been working on this project with collaborators at MIT and elsewhere for about seven years.

“We initially started this to work on a dengue test, to be able to test for the four serotypes of dengue, and then in 2015 the Zika outbreak occurred and we started pursuing a rapid test for Zika as well,” Hamad-Schifferli said.

She says she doesn’t think it will take long to have the test available for public use.

“MIT holds the patents to these, and we’re working on steps toward commercialization of these tests. The good thing is the technology used for this test is basically paper strips and that has already been developed in large-scale manufacturing techniques for pregnancy tests and other tests, so it’s really just adding new reagents to it. So we think maybe in about a year or so that these will be available,” Hamad-Schifferli said.

By that time, there could be additional uses for the test.

“We’re always looking toward what could be coming down the pipeline, like another outbreak that may occur. There have been studies that show that new outbreaks occur more frequently because of various factors, so we’re always trying to think about what could be the next outbreak,” Hamad-Schifferli said.

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