BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

January 2, 2018

Research Roundup: Improved Ebola & malaria diagnostics and gene therapy to foster HIV immunity

Taylor Capizola
Program Assistant
GHTC
PATH/Lynn Heinisch

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In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

A new, rapid diagnostic tool designed to detect Ebola in low-resource settings—EbolaCheck—is heading into its first field trial. Like other Ebola diagnostics, it works by detecting viral genetic material in blood, but it also has several characteristics that make it innovative and easy to deploy in the field: It is mobile; inexpensive, costing ten times less; rapid, taking as little as 70 minutes; needs minimal power to operate, and can be administered by staff with little training.The first field trial is scheduled to launch in rural areas of Brazil in January 2018, with an intent to study potential deployment challenges like temperature, humidity, and operating procedure.

A group of Ugandan millennials designed a low-cost, reusable malaria diagnostic tool—Matibabu—capable of quickly detecting malaria without drawing blood. Matibabu beams a red laser on an individual’s finger, detecting changes in shape, color, and concentration of red blood cells, all of which are affected by the presence of the malaria-causing parasite. Matibabu can diagnose malaria in only two minutes (compared to 30 minutes or more for a blood test) with an 80 percent success rate, though the developers noted some patient skepticism due to the simplicity and uniqueness of the test. Matibabu has already generated strong interest among the global community: The designers won the 2013 United Nations Women’s Empowerment award and are shortlisted for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa prize for engineering innovation, with an award of £25,000. If the developers win, they plan to use the funds to begin clinical trials and work to increase the accuracy of the tool.

Through gene therapy, researchers at UCLA engineered blood-forming stem cells in animals to produce chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) molecules that create T-cells capable of recognizing and destroying HIV-infected cells. These engineered cells persisted in destroying infected cells for more than two years after the initial edit, offering hope as a method to create long-term HIV immunity. While these findings are preliminary and the sample size is small, they are the first to show that this method of gene editing works in creating targeted immune cells that can mature and become functional throughout the body. This method of gene editing, coupled with other effective treatments like antiretroviral therapy, may pave the way for safe and lifelong HIV immunity.

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