Fighting Ebola
the Simple Way


MIT’s nanoparticle device for diagnosing Ebola.

If you said “Ebola” a few years ago in the U.S., most people would have shrugged their shoulders. In 2015, after the recent Ebola scare, it’s a different story. A group at MIT has been working on a nanoparticle device that, according to Lee Gerhke, professor at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, can quickly show whether someone most likely has the disease or not.

Gehrke says the creation came about through a series of collaborations, including critical ones with Jose Gomez-Marquez, an engineer with an interest in DIY technology and global health, and Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli, a visiting scientist in the mechanical engineering department at MIT. Gerhke says the need was based on the fact that there are few rapid diagnostics for dangerous viruses.

A new paper diagnostic device that can detect Ebola in addition to other hemorrhagic fevers. Image: Jose Gomez-Marquez, Helena de Puig, and Chun-Wan Yen.

For the test, the bodily fluid introduced goes through a paper with antibodies. The fluid binds to the nanoparticles and, if the subject tests positive, you will see a red color, says Hamad-Schifferli. The device also tests for Dengue Fever and Yellow Fever.

Gerhke says it’s not just about how many different diseases it can test for, but also about how many markers for one particular pathogen infection. For example, one may want to assay for a direct viral protein but may want to measure a host response protein or an antibody response, studying IgM or IgG to consider the possible stage of the infection and whether there is prior immunity. If have you have two markers for the same pathogen, Gerhke says, then it’s more likely it’s not a false positive.

Gehrke recalls that when he was planning this project, there were very specific guidelines he created, among them: Make a device that was simple, and make a device that doesn’t require special technology, equipment, or reagents. “We also wanted it to be as low cost as possible with the idea to make it available to large numbers of people in low-income and middle-income countries,” he says.

Gehrke believes the greatest use of the device would be in rapid triage assessment. One example, he says, is a waiting room at a clinic with multiple people experiencing fever that can be caused by a number of different diseases. You want to separate people quickly to avoid possible infection. “That’s a value of our tests,” he says. “They can be used in limited resource settings where all you need is a little bit of blood or serum and can do it where there isn’t electricity or running water.”

Hamad-Schifferli says this is one more example of how nanotechnology helps our world. “Medicine and nanotechnology have resulted in a really wide range of ways of using nanoparticles,” she says.

Putting Themselves to the Test

However, they are still out to make improvements. For one, Gehrke says they’re always looking for a better reagent to make the device as sensitive as possible. In addition, they’re focusing on expanding their work to other diseases as well. “We’d also love to really engage other people in lower and middle-income countries to innovate and help to determine the trajectory of development of the device. We want to hear about what kinds of improvements we’re not thinking of,” he says.

“Right now the Ebola outbreak appears to be waning but it’s not like you can say it’s gone away," he says. "It’s very difficult to predict when and where outbreaks will happen but we’re trying to be ready for the next outbreak.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

Learn more about bioengineering and medical devices at ASME’s Global Congress on NanoEngineering for Medicine and Biology.

It’s very difficult to predict when and where outbreaks will happen but we’re trying to be ready for the next outbreak.

Prof. Lee Gerhke, MIT


July 2015

by Eric Butterman,