UCSF researchers developing potential test to detect Ebola faster

Courtesy photoUC San Francisco researcher Dr. Charles Chiu expects that he soon will be able to incorporate into his research noninfectious Ebola samples from the current deadly outbreak.

For years, UC San Francisco researcher Dr. Charles Chiu has focused on finding a way to detect Ebola and other pathogens causing hemorrhagic fevers through a single test, as well as a faster way to diagnose such deadly diseases.

Within the next two weeks, the assistant professor in laboratory medicine and infectious diseases anticipates that for the first time, he will incorporate into his research noninfectious Ebola samples from the current outbreak that has killed more than 6,300 patients in West Africa so far this year.

Ebola is difficult to diagnose in a person who has been infected only for a few days partially because early symptoms, including fever, are often seen in patients with other diseases such as malaria and typhoid fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Chiu says what his team of 12 researchers is developing would make it possible for one test to determine which hemorrhagic fever strain has infected a patient.

“The goal would be to apply a single test that could detect not only Ebola, but other pathogens that can cause hemorrhagic fever, ” Chiu said.

While the three West African nations hit hardest by Ebola — Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia — today stand to benefit more than ever before from another type of test that detects Ebola, he notes it is also important that the test can identify other diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever and dengue virus.

“Right now, the focus has to be on Ebola, but you might envision that next year there could be an entirely new hemorrhagic fever that spreads through West Africa,” Chiu said.

Chiu is trying to develop a clinical test in the U.S. to further his research. He has used his preliminary data to identify Ebola from previous outbreaks with the same sensitivity as a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, the “gold standard” for detecting Ebola, Chiu noted.

“The turnaround time for that is a few hours, but it needs to be done in regions that are equipped with PCR,” Chiu explained. “Our idea is to provide those same types of laboratories, [with] the capacity to not only look for Ebola but everything else in a single test.”

There is currently no widely implemented test used that could detect all potential disease agents simultaneously, he said.

In addition to increasing efficiency in diagnosing Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers, Chiu and his team are also working to develop a test that would more quickly identify Ebola in a patient.

This test would detect Ebola earlier on in the disease, either before or just after the patient becomes symptomatic, said Chiu. Such times are when PCR tests can produce negative results even in a patient infected with Ebola.

“If it were possible, that would be something that is really useful,” Chiu said. "That could help guide [doctors to determine] which patients they want to treat aggressively, and which patients should be quarantined.”

Identifying Ebola in the earlier stages of the disease can prove to be life-saving. Chiu pointed out that the original Ebola test for Dr. Martin Salia, an American who died in the U.S. last month after contracting the virus in West Africa, came back negative.

“It was only positive three or four days later, but by then his disease had progressed,” Chiu said. “Part of it may be explained that … the diagnosis was made perhaps too late.”

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