A version of this story appears in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Ebola virus killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa after a 2014 outbreak. It took aid workers nearly two years to contain the deadly illness—in part due to limited resources and tests that were slow to produce results, at which point it was often too late for victims. Since then biochemist Mehmet Yigit and his research team at the University at Albany, in New York, have devised a new, low-cost test that quickly detects biomarkers of the contagious disease in urine.
A sample that turns red after gold nanoparticles are added means a person is infected. If the sample turns purple, all is well. Other tests take days to yield results; Yigit’s can reveal Ebola indicators within hours, so in the event of another epidemic, it could help diagnose more people in a shorter period of time.
“Our goal is to assemble a small kit that can be used for rapid disease screening,” says Yigit. “The current detection methods for Ebola and other diseases are costly, time-consuming, and require sophisticated equipment.”
Yigit’s lab—which is currently in the process of applying for research grants at the national level—is also considering techniques that would identify biomarkers of the Zika virus. “Our approach can be implemented in any scenario where the associated biomarkers and their recognition elements are identified,” he says. “It has a broad application spectrum.”