Mobile testing for Ebola gains renewed urgency as outbreak grows

PositiveID has a handheld prototype device that could be ready for use within two years

Developing a quick, mobile test to detect the presence of the deadly Ebola virus in a patient has become a priority for medical technologists.

The number of deaths from the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa has soared above 1,000. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak an international public health emergency last week and outlined ways to minimize the spread of the virus through airports and other travel pathways.

One small company, PositiveID, of Delray Beach, Fla., has developed a prototype device for testing for Ebola and other viruses and bio-threats, relying largely upon millions in federal dollars to fund its research. Developed in a lab in Pleasanton, Calif., the device looks like a mini-clamshell laptop. When closed, it is somewhat smaller in width and length than the iPad Mini, but much thicker -- about 2 in. It weighs about 2 lbs.

Called the Firefly DX, it can be used to test a sample of a person's blood or other bodily fluid for the presence of Ebola and other diseases at an airport screening area or a remote field location within 10 to 15 minutes.

In comparison, existing tests might take two to four hours once a patient's sample reaches a lab -- and it can take days to transport a sample to a lab in some remote regions.

"The best way to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus throughout the world is to detect is as early and as quickly as possible, at the source. And we believe our Firefly system will give us that ability," PostiveID CEO William Caragol said in a statement.

The prototype could require two more years of refinement before it is ready to be put into actual use, according to PositiveID. But the time needed to prepare a finished device for third-party testing could be cut to just over a year if new federal funding now being sought is approved, PostiveID President Lyle Probst said in an interview.

An entire Firefly system could cost $3,000 to $5,000; it would include a main laptop device, a battery charger and a carrying case. Tests could cost $25 a piece. If purchased in large numbers, the system's price could drop to $1,000 and the cost of a test could drop to as low as $5 per patient, Probst said.

The Firefly system relies on what is called real-time "polymerase chain reaction chemistry" to produce the molecular diagnostic results. To run a test, a sample of a patient's blood or other bodily fluid is placed into a small hole in the center of a one-use cartridge that fits inside the mini-clamshell unit, which is then closed. The testing process is started by simply pressing a large button on the exterior.

TV station KTVU in San Francisco posted an online video report showing how the device works.

the Firefly DX
PostiveID has developed a prototype device, the Firefly DX, to conduct quick tests for infectious diseases, including Ebola. Testing cartridges that include a small hole in the center for taking blood samples are are inserted into the small clamshell device. (Photo: PositiveID)

"We call it a laboratory in the palm of your hand," Probst said. "It will do the whole testing process that you do in a lab to detect some type of organism in 10 to 15 minutes, compared to several hours in a lab."

Training to run the tests should be a simple process for airport personnel or field workers, according to Probst. "We've taken the guesswork out of it, and the person running the test doesn't need to be a programmer or even a medical person," he said. A small blood sample can be taken with a finger prick, or a swab can be used to collect sample tissue from a patient's nose or mouth.

On the technology side, PositiveID has designed the system to allow different test programs to be encoded on an RFID chip inside the one-use cartridges. The reagents and other fluids needed to conduct the test are also inside the cartridge, and those test results are transmitted to the laptop device optically.

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