UC Santa Cruz Professor Builds Model of Low-Cost Ebola Sensor

Similar to a pregnancy test, the device gives simple feedback on a small film.

by Kara Guzman, Santa Cruz Sentinel (TNS) / October 31, 2014
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

A quick, low-cost test for Ebola may be available within a few years, thanks to UC Santa Cruz researcher Ahmet Ali Yanik.

The assistant electrical engineering professor has built a model of a handheld sensor designed to quickly detect Ebola from a finger prick of blood. Similar to a pregnancy test, the device gives simple feedback on a small film: clear means no virus, non-transparent means infection. Once developed, the sensor's cost is estimated at $3 each, said Yanik.

The project, which has gained speed in the two months since Yanik began meeting with UCSC chemistry and biochemistry professor Jin Zhang, has a note of regret: it should have come sooner. Yanik proved the concept in 2010 with a similar device but had trouble finding partners to patent and develop it.

"They told me basically it didn't look lucrative in the long term because it was oriented towards point of care, which basically requires things to be cheap," said Yanik, who said he then dropped the work and focused on cancer studies instead.

This year's Ebola outbreak, which began in March in West Africa, is the largest in history. The count of confirmed cases has reached 7,632 across eight countries, with 4,920 deaths, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The problem with high fever viruses is that they mimic the flu, said Yanik. By the time those infected realize it's not the flu, it's too late — not only for the patient, but also for containing the virus's spread.

"So the idea of making a point-of-care diagnostic tool, it helps you detect it early on, before you start to see those symptoms," Yanik said.

Unlike current detection tools which require expensive instruments and trained personnel, this device could easily be used in remote sites with little infrastructure, he said.

Using computer chip technology, Yanik created a metallic surface with tiny holes that affect the way the surface transmits light. When specific viruses attach to proteins on this surface, it stops transmitting light — a shift detectable to the naked eye, he said.

Yanik, who joined UCSC's faculty in February, revived his project in September after meeting Zhang, who provides a missing piece.

Zhang said his lab has not yet begun work on the project, but can likely help perfect the protein on the sensor's surface.

"What we want to do is put a molecule that it can recognize a biomarker on the virus, like it's a key in a lock," Zhang said.

Yanik said he's close to a prototype ready for development, and his lab is testing models with a pseudovirus unable to infect humans or animals. The exterior of the virus looks like Ebola, but the genetic material is different, he said.

The device is currently in testing with live Ebola viruses at one of the two U.S. labs that allow live viruses, he said.

Depending on funding and the development team's size, the device could be ready for use in sometime from one to three years, he said.

"It's better late than never, right?," Yanik said. "So we don't know what the future is going to bring. We are hoping the Ebola crisis will be over soon, but if it's not, it could even be used for that," Yanik said.

©2014 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)