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Mason research can help stop infectious disease outbreaks

September 28, 2017   /   by Michele McDonald

Technology developed at George Mason University is now part of a multi-million-dollar project to create a new diagnostic test to detect fast-moving and devastating infectious disease outbreaks such as Ebola and Zika.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency is funding an $11.7 million program to develop a “reliable, safe, and simple universal surveillance platform.”

“Infectious diseases remain one of the main causes of death worldwide and a significant threat to national security,” said Kylene Kehn-Hall, an associate professor with the George Mason-based National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases. “In just the last five years, for example, epidemics of Ebola, Chikungunya, and Zika viruses, usually restricted to tropical climates, have reached the United States.”

Mason researchers are partnering with local company Ceres Nanosciences, which has commercialized Mason technology and is known for its early-stage Lyme disease detection test, to help develop the new test. Other key partners include Tasso Inc. and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). The multi-year program is starting with $4.25 million in funding from DTRA.

“When a new outbreak occurs, public health officials quickly need as much information as possible about the pathogen[s] causing the outbreak to determine how to control it,” said Dr. Louis Altamura of USAMRIID. “Analyzing clinical samples from infected patients is one of the best ways to get that information, but existing blood sample collection and screening methods can expose healthcare workers and laboratory technicians to pathogens, presenting safety concerns for these workers and potentially contributing to the spread of the epidemic.”

Ceres will integrate its Nanotrap particle technology, which can capture, concentrate, and preserve pathogens and other biomolecules, into Tasso’s HemoLink device for simple and painless collection of large-volume capillary blood samples in remote environments that then can be shipped over long distances while still remaining clinically useful.

The potential new test is about the size of a patch and contains Nanotrap particles, which attach to pathogens and other markers of disease, preventing degradation and making them easier to detect. Healthcare workers put the device on an infected person’s arm to draw blood, which mixes the Nanotrap particles in at the same time.

Ceres has shown that its Nanotrap particles can stabilize pathogens like influenza for later analyzation, said Ben Lepene, Ceres chief technology officer.

“We’re very excited to work with Tasso, Mason, and USAMRIID to apply that same approach to enrich and stabilize from blood a wide range of host biomarkers along with viral and bacterial pathogens that represent a risk to the U.S. Department of Defense,” he said.

The new approach could save lives.

“There is an urgent need for an easier way to reach people in rural or hard-to-reach environments to provide health experts with the information they need to make effective decisions in a timely manner,” said Erwin Berthier, vice president of research and development at Tasso. “Integrating the Nanotrap particle technology and the simple HemoLink blood collection technology will enable acquiring samples from populations in outbreak regions without putting phlebotomists or patients at risk or requiring burdensome logistical networks.”