The rapid spread of the Zika virus is elevating concern across the globe, including in the U.S., where the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued travel warnings and health advisories to help control its transmission. One issue facing health officials is the absence of a simple, quick process to detect the infection, raising the chances the disease could spread by infected people who do not know they carry it.
Ancon Medical, Inc. researchers have determined that the company’s existing disease-screening technology could also be used to test for the Zika virus. Using technology called Nanoparticle Biomarker Tagging (NBT), Ancon Medical has developed a device that could detect the Zika virus in infected individuals, just by checking their breath.
“Unlike any other disease screening technology, the NBT device is precisely the kind of tool health officials need to sound an early warning of a Zika outbreak and slow the spread of the virus,” said Ancon Medical Chief Executive Wesley Baker. “Because it is quick, non-invasive and easy to administer, the NBT device could test mildly sick individuals, or even those not showing any symptoms at all, helping health officials find the virus early and take preventative action.”
When a virus like Zika infects a person, it fundamentally changes their body chemistry, creating volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that serve as a “biomarker” for the disease. Ancon Medical’s NBT device can detect these biomarkers at miniscule levels in exhaled breath, potentially delivering an early diagnosis that could slow the spread of the virus. After discovering the unique biomarker for a Zika virus infection, an NBT device could easily be programmed to screen for this molecule.
For most adults, the effects of the Zika virus are relatively mild and usually subside in two to seven days. The CDC reports these symptoms as: fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, headaches and muscle aches which generally don’t require hospital visits. Furthermore, 80 percent of infected adults won’t display any symptoms at all.
However, while Zika may present little danger for the majority of adults, it’s very hazardous to pregnant women or those planning to become pregnant. The Zika virus, which has spread rapidly in Brazil, is also suspected to be behind the rise in birth defects reported in this country. Specifically. The CDC has found links between the Zika virus and Brazilian infants born with microcephaly, which results in smaller brain and head sizes. This is a potentially fatal birth defect.
“The danger to infants is why prevention measures are critical to halt the spread of the Zika virus,” Baker said. “And that can only be done if health officials know about an outbreak early. That’s precisely why Ancon Medical developed NBT technology, to give doctors and health officials a critical early warning for a wide range of diseases, including Zika.”
The threat of the Zika virus has already spread to the U.S., with the CDC reporting that there have been 52 document cases across 16 U.S. states since January 2015.
Zika is primarily spread through the bites of the yellow fever and Asian tiger mosquitos that are common in large parts of the U.S. Since people often don’t know they are infected, or believe it to be a more common illness, they unknowingly promote further spread of the virus by exposing themselves to the outdoors and, subsequently, mosquito bites. Additionally, the CDC said that the disease can also be transmitted through sexual contact or blood transfusions. So far, all U.S. cases are the result of travel to tropical areas where the Zika virus is more common, but health officials are concerned about its spread once the weather warms.
By alerting more individuals that they are infected by the Zika virus, health officials can help prevent the conditions under which it can spread. Individuals infected with Zika can transmit the virus through their bloodstream for about a week. Warning adults infected with the virus to stay inside can help control spread through mosquito bites. Also, early detection of outbreaks of Zika can alert officials to conduct thorough mosquito control in areas where the virus is spreading, further slowing the transmission.
It takes early detection to help stop the spread of the virus, which is something health officials lack. With no widely available screening method for Zika, detecting the virus currently requires taking tissue samples to a laboratory for sophisticated molecular testing, reports the New York Times. There’s also work on developing a blood test for Zika, which would provide a quicker result than laboratory tests, but still requires the invasive practice of drawing a blood sample.
“A blood sample is reasonable for some people, especially if they are sick and already in a clinical environment, but for individuals showing only mild symptoms, they may not want to have blood drawn,” Baker said. “That’s where our NBT technology becomes so valuable. Someone who will shy away from a needle probably won’t be so nervous when it comes to simply exhaling their breath into the NBT device’s tube. Within a few minutes, an NBT device could show the presence of the disease, providing doctors with the means to make a crucial early diagnosis and stop the spread of the virus.”
The NBT device gives health officials a versatile tool to conduct a wide-range of disease screening. Researchers have already discovered the biomarkers for lung cancer and hundreds of other diseases and the NBT is sensitive enough to detect these biomarkers at a sensitivity that could be measured down to one molecule. Its size makes the NBT device portable and its cost of around $39,500 make it accessible to a wide range of medical care providers, from mobile clinics to doctors’ offices to full-service hospitals.