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Fabric 'chips' made of woven silk could provide a cheap alternative to plastic for rapidly diagnosing a wide range of diseases, including hepatitis, HIV and tuberculosis, as well as conducting some metabolic tests, scientists have found.

After being treated with antibodies or other chemicals, the silk fibres change colour — in a similar way to home pregnancy kits — when they come into contact with a specific disease.

Eventually, scientists hope to develop a single fabric strip that will allow doctors to diagnose a wide range of illnesses at the patient's bedside in around five minutes.

It is the adaptability of the material that makes silk so ideal for this use, Dhananjaya Dendukuri, a scientist at Achira Labs, Bangalore, told SciDev.Net, as, by changing factors such as the pattern and weave, multiple chemicals can be placed on a tiny strip.

The technique also takes advantage of India's extensive silk-weaving industry — providing a cheap and abundant source of the fabric to allow the project to be scaled up, a process which Dendukuri hopes would begin in 2013. The added demand for silk that the product could create would also benefit the weaving industry, he claimed.

The project is one of 22 recipients of a US$32 million fund provided by Grand Challenges Canada — an initiative of the Canadian government — and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which aims to bring rapid diagnostic tools that can perform multiple analyses to rural communities in the developing world.

Dendukuri told SciDev.Net that the US$1 million that his project received from the fund will help the technology through clinical trials and get it ready to be launched into the market.

According to Dendukuri, the greatest hurdle will be "showing the tests work robustly each time out in the field — the same way they do in the lab. Access to raw materials that are robust and getting the same thing each time is a challenge we are working on."

Although Mark Perkins, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), welcomed the development he said that developing rapid diagnostic products in general may not be easy.  "There are significant technical challenges … that have not been overcome despite substantial private sector investment," he said.

"Beyond this, technology solutions must be linked to social movements or
health system reform efforts that enable patients to directly benefit from the results of diagnostic testing, including treatment, referral, disease containment, or vaccination efforts," he added.

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