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Diagnosing Emerging Outbreaks

Rapid, cheap, accurate diagnostics and sensors are built using synthetic gene networks and ordinary paper

Paper-based diagnostics developed at the Wyss Institute can be customized to detect the genetic signatures of RNA viruses like Ebola, Zika, SARS, measles, influenza, hepatitis C, and West Nile fever within one week after the causative agent is identified. The ability to pinpoint a strain-specific diagnosis in the field could prove valuable to national and global health organizations for tracking the spread of a viral outbreak in real time and for preparing containment strategies and treatment plans. The rapid response time of the sensors would allow for targeted administration of antibiotics, reducing the chance of a contagion becoming drug resistant.

In this video, Wyss Core Faculty member James Collins and research collaborators discuss their low-cost, paper-based diagnostic system developed for detecting specific strains of the Zika virus, with the goal that it could soon be used in the field to easily screen blood, urine, or saliva samples. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

The diagnostics are comprise of synthetic gene networks, ‘circuits’ of re-engineered molecular components, able to sense a specific input and, in response, regulate a measurable output. Until recently, the application of such cell-based synthetic gene networks has been restricted within the laboratory because of biosafety concerns and the practicality of living cells as hosts. The Wyss Institute team has developed a new in vitro platform on ordinary paper, allowing synthetic gene networks to be easily freeze-dried for storage and safe transport beyond the lab. To be activated, the freeze–dried paper needs simply be rehydrated with blood, urine, or saliva serum. Leveraging CRISPR-Cas9’s ability for sequence recognition, the paper-based diagnostic can discriminate between strains whose genetic profiles differ by as little as one nucleotide.

In response to an emerging outbreak, we envision a custom-tailored diagnostic system could be ready for use within one week’s time.

James Collins

Using standard equipment and commercially available, cell–free systems, Wyss researchers can build a wide range of paper–based diagnostics and biosensors that enable a colorimetric output visible to the naked eye and quantifiable by a low-cost electronic optical reader.

This technology is available for licensing.

In this video, Wyss Institute researchers discuss their approach to developing the paper-based diagnostic system, and the proof of concept test with a non-viral synthetic strain of the Ebola virus. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

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