UT researchers working to create diagnostic tool to assess viruses such as Zika

Eva Frederick

Earlier this month, the Center for Disease Control confirmed the first Texas case of the Zika virus, a tropical disease that can cause birth defects if women are infected while pregnant. UT researchers are creating an easy and affordable diagnostic tool that will potentially help track the spread of viruses such as Zika virus.

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus closely related to dengue fever. Although Zika causes symptoms such as rashes, fever and headaches, the most ominous threat Zika poses is not in the initial illness. Zika can cause microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormal smallness of the head and incomplete brain development.

According to the CDC, the only known Texan with Zika contracted it while abroad. The CDC has released some recommendations for pregnant women who want to travel to high-risk areas, including tips for prevention and detection of the virus.
Currently, the Zika virus is untreatable and there is no vaccine. Because many cases are asymptomatic, experts are having difficultly accurately judging the spread of the disease.
“This is the one case that is diagnosed. It makes me believe there are many more that are not diagnosed,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, the director of Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development in Houston, in an interview with Forbes.
UT research educator Tim Riedel heads an FRI stream that is currently working on a technology that will improve diagnostics for mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya. Riedel and his stream, in collaboration with the Ellington lab, hope to create a cheap, portable box that can detect Zika DNA. This could allow people to test for pathogens in the mosquitoes themselves instead of waiting for patients to report the disease.
“There is a particularly vulnerable population here — pregnant women,” Riedel said. “[Currently], we cannot track these diseases in the mosquitoes. We always get the person in the hospital, which is kind of too late.”
Over the course of a year, Riedel and his team have produced a functional prototype, which uses molecular technology to determine the presence or absence a given pathogen. Riedel said he hopes to receive further funding to fine-tune the device and eventually make it commercially available.
This type of technology could be useful in a situation like the Zika outbreak to offset the difficulty scientists have encountered in tracking the disease through only reported cases.
“Public health agencies will probably want to get the information faster, cheaper, more widespread, but I think the buzzword is democratization,” Riedel said. “This could allow you, if you feel like you are at risk, to hopefully have an affordable product you could use.”