Penn Engineers Create Groundbreaking $2 Portable Zika Test

Using a saliva sample, the test can identify Zika in a patient in 40 minutes, the engineers say.

The Zika test is the size of a soda can. | Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

The Zika test is the size of a soda can. | Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

Engineers at the University of Pennsylvania may be on to something groundbreaking. They created a simple $2 portable Zika virus test that can work without electricity, making it ideal for developing countries.

The test was first revealed as part of a study in the Analytical Chemistry journal, and was conducted by research assistant professor Changchun Liu and professor Haim Bau as well as Bau lab members Jinzhao Song and Michael Mauk, in collaboration with associate professor of microbiology, Sara Cherry, and a member in her lab, Brent Hackett.

Early detection of the Zika virus is especially important for pregnant women or those who plan to become pregnant, and this test could soon be the means to early detection.

Currently available Zika tests require very sensitive laboratory equipment that needs to be operated by a medical professional. But this new test is for the layman. Those without any technical expertise or knowledge about the virus can easily test patients and receive easy-to-understand results. With just a saliva sample, a patient can know if they have contracted the virus. After 40 minutes, if the dye in the test turns blue, Zika is present in the patient, the engineers say.

Haim Bau and Changchun Liu Courtesy: University of Pennyslvania

Haim Bau and Changchun Liu |
Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania

The test uses a reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (or RT-LAMP for short) genetic assay, which is an analysis that determines the presence of a substance and would cause the dye to turn blue if Zika is present. The fact that the assay is RT-LAMP is important, because it “only requires the sample to be kept at a specific temperature, not cycled through multiple precise temperature changes,” a statement released by the engineers says.

The tests already on the market require all of the aspects that the RT-LAMP does not, making the new test potentially all the more simple and quick. An assay that can detect genetic material from the virus like Penn’s is considered the “gold standard” in diagnostics, according to the statement.

“It’s exciting to see an RT-LAMP assay in development. This technology is easy to use and can be totally portable in areas without access to scientific equipment,” assistant professor of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health Emily Martin told Philadelphia magazine.

Although the test is still not ready to take the main stage, the engineers and all involved seem confident going into the next phases.

“Our work represents a proof of concept at this stage,” Bau said in a statement. “Before the assay can be adapted for medical use, we must experiment with patients’ samples and make sure that our assay and system match the performance of the gold standard and operate reproducibly and reliably. We are fortunate to have dedicated colleagues in endemic regions ready to assist us in this task.”