With a grant worth 100,000 Canadian dollars (US$95,600) from the non-profit organisation — the Toronto-based Grand Challenges Canada — the scientists are developing a paper strip test to quickly and effectively identify the diseases in a project that began in July and will run until the end of 2014.
The Canadian organisation supports global health initiatives in low and middle income countries (LMICs) worldwide, including Africa. As part of their Stars in Global Health competition, they selected the project along with 101 others for the fourth round to begin the proof of principle stage of research.
“Our peer review panel of experts from across the world weigh the applicability and potential for impact of each project,” says Grand Challenges Canada programme director, Ken Simiyu.
“This is a test you can use in the village setting. It is cheap, easy to use and highly effective for diagnosis. ”
Misaki Wayengera, Makerere University College of Health Sciences
The reviewers look at elements such as the sustainability of the project, its potential for future development and the likelihood it will save lives.
Simiyu adds: “They considered this a project that could have a large, life-saving impact in areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Uganda, where Ebola is found”.
Project leader, Misaki Wayengera of Makerere University College of Health Sciences, explains the test is a vital tool for resource-poor rural communities to identify and quarantine victims of outbreaks.
Current diagnosis of Ebola requires transportation of blood samples to secure testing facilities for confirmation, which if not carefully done by trained experts could further lead to more infections due to the virus being highly contagious.
The paper strip test would limit the dangers of transport and diagnosis, according to Wayengera.
“This is a test you can use in the village setting. It is easy to use and highly effective for diagnosis,” says Wayengera.
Two modes of action for the test are currently being investigated, including an antigen-based version that would identify the virus itself and one based on antibodies present in the blood of infected individuals.
Both mechanisms would react with a blood sample from a simple finger prick to change the paper strip's colour if positive in two to five minutes, adds Wayengera.
Outbreaks of Ebola and Marburg are an ongoing problem in Uganda. According to the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the viruses killed 19 people last year.
Coupled with larger efforts and safety programmes, the paper strip test could help reduce these figures, says Stuart Nichol, chief of the CDC's Viral Special Pathogens Branch.
Nichol tells SciDev.Net: “If there are good safety elements [in villages and small towns], the test could get a bit quicker diagnosis of the diseases, which might help prevent the infection from spilling over”.
Peter Singer, the CEO of Grand Challenges Canada, says: “We are trying to nurture innovation and creativity in these communities [LMICs] because we believe those close to the problems are the best situated to solve them”.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.