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Scientists Dream of 'Holy Grail' Device to Detect Ebola

In West Africa, more than 1,600 people have become infected with Ebola. New technology could spot the next outbreak before it spreads.

In West Africa, where the Ebola outbreak has claimed nearly 900 lives, the “holy grail” of medical devices could one day help detect deadly viruses before they spread.

Right now, health professionals in the field rely on color-changing strips. These rapid test strips react to antibodies in blood samples, letting them detect specific viruses like Ebola within 15 minutes.

It’s a very useful test in the middle of an outbreak. Even better are polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines, which can analyze DNA from blood samples for more accurate results. Next-generation sequencing machines — which are being tested around the world — can do the same thing, but also have the ability to spot multiple types of viruses.

Both, however, are heavier and more expensive than the strips. (PCR machines can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000). Preventing the next Ebola outbreak could require something more advanced. Think the medical tricorder from “Star Trek”: a portable device that could quickly diagnose a variety of diseases in remote areas.

“That is the holy grail now,” Dr. Charles Chiu, director of the Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center (VDDC) at the University of California, San Francisco, told NBC News. Devices like Oxford Nanopore’s MinION (a pocket-sized gadget that connects to USB ports) are a good start, he said, but they need to become more powerful and accurate before they can be used widely in the field.

Spotting Ebola Before it Spreads

One of the problems with early detection is that someone who has early symptoms of Ebola — like vomiting and diarrhea — might not have Ebola at all. They could have Lassa fever, which affects around 300,000 Africans every year, or something more benign.

If a small group of people are showing symptoms in a remote village, sending out a team with strips that only detect Ebola or transporting blood samples back to one of the few labs in Africa with a PCR machine is not very efficient.

“In the future, you’re going to see these point-of-care devices that can analyze small amounts of DNA very quickly,” he said. “With a single DNA-based test, you would be able to detect anything.”

A device like that could let mobile teams identify Ebola outbreaks before they hit major cities. Theoretically, Chiu said, the same technology could spot dangerous viruses in animal populations before humans even get infected.

“We know most of these agents come from animals, so why not do animal surveillance?” he said.

Mapping Out Prevention

Of course, even the most advanced diagnostic tools aren’t much help if healthcare workers don’t know where they are. That was the problem Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) faced when they arrived in Guinea last month.

“If you don’t have basic mapping information, you can’t do things like send health workers out to do a survey,” Kate Chapman, director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, told NBC News.

Her organization stepped up, using satellite images and volunteers around the world to build maps with roads and town names that proved a lot more useful than the topographical maps MSF started out with.

New technology like drones could make those maps even better. Paired with something like Chiu’s “holy grail” device, fighting Ebola in the future could look very different than it does today.

“If something like this was in place,” he said, “where you could detect any kind of infectious agent and you could deploy help where it’s most needed, you could avoid these kinds of outbreaks.”