May 08, 2016

Research Roundup: a rapid diagnostic for Ebola and fighting mosquito-borne diseases with soap and coconuts

Senior Program Assistant

Ebola is hard to diagnose in low-resource settings. It requires specialized laboratories and trained personnel, blood samples must remain in cooled containers when transported from health clinics to labs, and the test itself takes several hours. However, researchers at the American Chemical Society have developed a handheld device that can diagnose Ebola and determine a patient’s viral load in less than 40 minutes. The tool tests four samples at once—two from the patient and two controls—and requires a small amount of blood which can be obtained via finger prick. The team hopes that the device could also be used to monitor the virus in survivors' semen and breast milk, which is particularly critical as increasing evidence suggests the disease remains transmissible through bodily fluids long after a patient has recovered.

During their time at the International Institute of Water and Environment in Burkina Faso, two students developed a shea butter–based soap to fight malaria, using lemongrass and other oils that are natural mosquito repellants and larvicides. The students received a US$25,000 grant from University of California Berkeley as part of the Global Social Ventures Competition and are now hosting a crowdfunding campaign to finance the testing and production of the soap. The inventors, Gerard Niyondiko of Burundi and Moctar Dembele of Burkina Faso, hope that with adequate funding the soap could save 100,000 lives by 2018. In addition to the benefits of using the soap—which repels mosquitos for several hours after use—the discarded soapy water is expected to kill mosquito larvae, as it is often thrown into the street or dumped in stagnant water.

Little girl with coconut at Angkor Pre Rup wat temple, Siem Reap (Photo: PATH/Jan Jacobs)

The bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis has been approved for use as a pesticide by the US Environmental Protection Agency, as it kills mosquito and blackfly larvae but does not harm humans. However, its use in mosquito control was expensive until Dr. Palmira Ventosilla, a microbiologist at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru, devised an innovative system of delivery. Ventosilla has created kits for individuals, without any scientific training, to inoculate coconuts with the bacteria at home. The coconuts are then opened and left in small bodies of water (i.e., ponds), eliminating 90 percent of mosquito larvae within four days and keeping the water larvae-free for twelve days. The mosquitoes don’t develop resistance to the bacteria, as they do with chemical pesticides, and the bacteria is completely safe—even in human drinking water.