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A quick, low-cost test for Ebola may be available within a few years, thanks to UC Santa Cruz researcher Ahmet Ali Yanik. Similar to a pregnancy test, the device gives simple feedback on a small film.

The assistant electrical engineering professor has built a model of a handheld sensor designed to quickly detect Ebola from a finger prick of blood. Similar to a pregnancy test, the device gives simple feedback on a small film: clear means no virus, non-transparent means infection. Once developed, the sensor’s cost is estimated at $3 each, Yanik told govtech.

The project, which has gained speed in the two months since Yanik began meeting with UCSC chemistry and biochemistry professor Jin Zhang, has a note of regret: it should have come sooner. Yanik proved the concept in 2010 with a similar device but had trouble finding partners to patent and develop it.

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This year’s Ebola outbreak, which began in March in West Africa, is the largest in history. The count of confirmed cases has reached 7,632 across eight countries, with 4,920 deaths, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The problem with high fever viruses is that they mimic the flu, said Yanik. By the time those infected realize it’s not the flu, it’s too late – not only for the patient, but also for containing the virus’s spread.

“So the idea of making a point-of-care diagnostic tool, it helps you detect it early on, before you start to see those symptoms,” Yanik said.

Unlike current detection tools which require expensive instruments and trained personnel, this device could easily be used in remote sites with little infrastructure, he said.

Using computer chip technology, Yanik created a metallic surface with tiny holes that affect the way the surface transmits light. When specific viruses attach to proteins on this surface, it stops transmitting light – a shift detectable to the naked eye, he said.