The idea is to quickly diagnose patients in remote locations where the spread of Ebola has been rampant. A Rutgers researcher has received a grant of nearly $640,000 from the National Institutes of Health to develop a rapid test to diagnose Ebola along with other viruses that can cause symptoms similar to the deadly disease.  

(Zeljko Bozic, ThinkStock)

Dr. David Alland, chief of Infectious Disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School will work with the California biotechnology company Cepheid to develop the test. Alland and Cepheid used technology similar to the planned test to develop a rapid test for tuberculosis (TB) which is widely used in poor areas around the world.

The test is done in a small plastic cartridge that is about the size of a golf ball. Everything is done automatically inside the cartridge.

"For a disease like Ebola where handling blood products or other bodily fluids is very dangerous, this system makes it possible to put a specimen right into the cartridge in a sealed, very safe way," Alland said. "Because our test is already being widely used around the world for tuberculosis, there is already an installed base of instruments that run this test all over the world, including many in Africa."

The test would be able to be used wherever a patient is presenting systems. It would be able to be taken into remote villages for screening purposes.

"With a small finger prick, blood sample or swab from a cheek or some saliva, we'd be able to take the sample, put it into the cartridge and have results within a half hour," Alland said.

While the current tests only take a couple hours to perform, they can only be done in specialized laboratories by highly skilled people. Taking the test doesn't take long, but getting the sample to and from the facility can take several days to weeks.

"In a place like Africa, the patient can die before the results even come back," Alland said.  "This system would drastically cut down the turnaround time."

As they develop their test for the Ebola virus, Alland and Cepheid also plan to create rapid diagnostic tests for other viral illnesses including chikungunya, a painful mosquito-borne disease that sickened more than 140 people in New Jersey this year after they visited tropical regions in the Caribbean, Asia and islands in the Pacific.