Articles — 05 November 2014
The Ebola Sensor
Harvard's Weiss Institute

Harvard’s Wyss Institute has recently developed a diagnostic tool that will allow scientists to have a slip of paper able to run an experiment outside of the laboratory. To detect a disease with this tool all you would need is sample of saliva or blood. Two novel inventions have been combined to create, a highly specific biosensor, the toehold switch and the paper-based platform operating system.

“In the last fifteen years, there have been exciting advances in synthetic biology, but until now, researchers have been limited in their progress due to the complexity of biological systems and the challenges faced when trying to re–purpose them. Synthetic biology has been confined to the laboratory, operating within living cells or in liquid–solution test tubes.”

The paper-based diagnostics tool, developed by James Collins and his team, use fluorescent and color changing proteins to indicate responses using standard paper. The paper slips are freeze-dried and able to be shipped and stored at room temperature. To reactivate the slips, only add water and they are ready to go. These paper tools will also greatly decrease time spent in the lab. Experiments using living cells can take three days while these new paper slips can evaluate a reaction in up to 90 minutes.

The toehold switch, created by Peng Yin and his team, was originally intended for experiments in living cells and allows for highly specific gene expression regulation. The toehold switch is designed to detect a unique RNA signature. This high specificity allows many toehold switches to function at the same time, so researchers can generate complex biological circuits.

These two advances have been combined to create an Ebola sensor that can detect the strain of the Ebola virus. The two teams at the Wyss institute collaborated and developed an Ebola sensor that can detect the virus and whether it is the Sudan or Zaire strain in an hour. This collaboration has changed the way we can detect disease and will be beneficial to the developing world because of its storage capabilities.

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Daniel Goldfarb

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