An ebola test so sensitive that it can detect the virus before a patient even falls ill will be available within a year, The Mail on Sunday has learned.
Backers of the multi-million-pound project, who include the Ford family and the billionaire head of the Indian Tata steel group, believe it will transform the battle against the killer disease.
Based on a new method of ‘reading’ DNA, it will be able to give a result within minutes, according to inventor Dr Anita Goel, a Harvard-educated scientist.
The outbreak has claimed more than 10,000 lives so far, in part because no current test can tell if a person is carrying the virus before they start showing symptoms.
Invention: The Gene Radar detects ebola before patients become infectious and is likely to be approved within a year
That can be up to 21 days after infection. As a result many slip through the net of detection – and go on to infect others. Even when patients develop a fever medics often struggle to determine if it is ebola, malaria, or just flu. Blood tests have to be sent away to hospitals, which can take weeks in West Africa.
But now US health authorities are assessing a new test that will be able to detect the virus just a few days after a person is infected – and before they become infectious. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is ‘fast tracking’ the assessment so it can be made available as soon as possible, said Dr Goel.
In her system, a drop of blood or saliva is taken from a patient, placed in a cartridge and slotted into a machine that uses molecules to read chains of DNA.
Dr Goel claims the ‘Gene Radar’ device – which is the size of an office desk phone, runs on batteries and needs no water – is as accurate as the expensive, desk-sized molecular diagnostics machines that are currently used in hospitals.
Trials showed it was able to detect minute quantities of ebola virus in the blood of monkeys two to three days after infection, she said.
‘In human beings that research doesn’t exist, so we can only guess, but in principle we know that we can get at the nanoscale very sensitive limits of detection.’
Crisis: The outbreak has so far claimed more than 10,000 lives so far
She said the machine could be used to identify any virus – she is already working on ebola, HIV, and flu – but a separate test needed to be developed and approved for each.
‘The one we are working to fast track is the point-of-care test for ebola, because it’s an emergency situation,’ she said. ‘That’s the one where there’s interest from the FDA, because of the current outbreak.’
The ebola test was likely to be approved by the FDA within a year, she said, adding: ‘If all goes well it could be very soon.’
Speaking in Kent at the launch of the World Nano Foundation, a trade body, she said that her firm, Nanobiosym, was already scaling up production: ‘We are ready to deploy [the machines] within months.’ Among her business advisors are Alfred Ford, of the car-making dynasty, and Ratan Tata, one of India’s richest men, whose firm owns Tetley tea, Jaguar Land Rover, and Corus steel.
Dr Goel claimed the machine would also be useful in fighting flu pandemics, as it could be set up to differentiate ‘common garden varieties’ from potentially deadly strains.
Her longer-term vision is to put the machines in GP surgeries, ending long waits for blood test results, and even in people’s homes. An FDA spokesman said: ‘The FDA cannot confirm the existence of, or comment on, any pending product applications, and is only able to provide information on cleared applications.’