New Test Lets UF Scientist and Team Find Zika Faster


A University of Florida entomologist is working with other scientists to detect the Zika virus in minutes, rather than days or weeks, allowing for faster and more targeted mosquito control practices and detection in patient samples.

Zika can lead to multiple symptoms in adults, including fever, rash, headache and joint pain. It also can cause microcephaly, a condition that causes infants to be born with a head that’s much smaller than that of a normal baby. So, faster Zika detection is essential.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 5,102 symptomatic Zika cases in the U.S. in 2016. Of those, 224 people got the virus by a mosquito in their area, rather than from a mosquito overseas. There have been 123 Zika cases in the U.S. from Jan. 1 through May 31, 2017. Florida has reported 46 cases so far in 2017 due to international travel. The numbers may get higher as we start the rainy season, when mosquitoes are more likely to bite and thus, spread viruses like Zika.

In a new study, scientists -- including Barry Alto from the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences -- show how they use tools to find Zika RNA in mosquitoes tested at a UF/IFAS lab. Alto helped prepare virus-infected samples used by Ozlem Yaren, the first author on the paper that describes this study. 

“These technological advances dramatically advance the goal of having a user-friendly RNA-based virus detection system,” said Alto, a faculty member at the UF/IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, Fla. “These studies also demonstrate that the detection system is as sensitive as the current testing and can detect the amount of virus that would be present in mosquito saliva, which is an indicator of transmission potential.”

Like all living organisms, the Zika virus has a genome, but it differs from humans in that it has RNA, while humans have DNA and RNA. With the new tools, Alto and the rest of the team take a sample, such as a crushed mosquito that might carry the virus, and look for the Zika RNA in that sample.

To find Zika now, researchers use a test called a Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction, which essentially amplifies RNA in mosquitoes. To get those tests, dead mosquitoes are sent to a lab, which is time-consuming and costly.

The new tools eventually will allow the team to test for Zika RNA in the field in about 30 minutes for a few dollars, said Steven Benner, the lead author of the new study and an Alachua-based scientist at the nonprofit research organization called Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. The research team will study the accuracy of their testing system in field conditions this summer, Benner said.

The study was published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases.

Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

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