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Two professors in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science have developed a quick, low-cost, portable testing device for the Zika virus.

Professors Haim Bau and Changchun Liu, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, began working on the test in March after learning about the growing threat of the virus.

“In the last few years, our Micro and Nano Fluidics laboratory has made significant advances in point of care diagnostics,” Bau and Liu said. “Once we learned about the recent outbreak of the Zika virus (ZIKV) pandemic in the Americas, its devastating consequence to pregnant women and their fetuses, and the lack of appropriate diagnostic tools, we recognized that we are in a position to provide an appropriate solution to address this problem.”

The only current methods of testing for Zika that have been approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention require some expertise or technical equipment to carry out. Most notable about Bau and Liu’s device is how easy it is to use.

The assay they developed, which uses what is called reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification, does not require lab equipment. One simply has to provide the soda can-sized device with a saliva sample, and color-changing dye will turn blue within about 40 minutes if it detects the virus.

The previously approved assays, which use what is called reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, require multiple specific temperature adjustments that can only be carried out in a lab. The RT-LAMP process, however, only requires the sample to be kept at one temperature — which is easily achieved using the simplified amplification process Bau and Liu developed.

The total cost of the materials and reagents needed for the device is only $2, making it potentially more accessible to the masses. However, the device must still undergo more tests before it is ready for patient use — and according to the researchers, it will not be available before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“Before the assay can be adapted for medical use, we must, among other things, experiment with patients’ samples and verify that our assay and system match the performance of the gold standard (laboratory-based RT-PCR) and operate reproducibly and reliably,” the researchers said. “We are fortunate to have dedicated colleagues in endemic regions ready to assist us in this task. We hope to secure the necessary funding to continue developing the system and carrying out these critical experiments.”

The researchers’ preliminary experiments have indicated that their test matches the performance of the RT-PCR test approved by the CDC, but they must still continue to experiment before the assay can be released.

Bau and Liu were assisted by Jinzhao Song and Michael Mauk, who work in Bau’s lab, as well as Sara Cherry, associate professor of microbiology in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Brent Hackett, who works in Cherry’s lab. The researchers’ work was published in the journal Analytical Chemistry on June 16.

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