UT scientists develop a cheaper, faster method to rapidly detect viruses

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff
  • UT scientists have developed a faster method of detecting viruses in urine.
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  • Adam Hilterbrand, a microbiology graduate student, and Jeffrey Dick, an electrical chemistry graduate student, developed this method through their work with murine cytomegalovirus, a form of human papillomavirus (HPV) found in mice. They chose this particular virus because of its strong physiological similarities, such as shape and size, to the human strain of HPV.
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  • This new method involves using electrodes to collect indicators of the disease from urine samples. Hilterbrand said that current diagnostic tests are expensive and involve complex procedures.
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  • “We are using an already contaminated biological sample like urine, which requires less sampling preparation to test for pathogens,” Hilterbrand said.
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  • One key component of Hilterbrand and Dick’s diagnostic test involves the use of a catalyst to amplify the amount of reactions that occur on the electrode. They developed this new technique based off of a chemical reaction used in glucometers, which measure glucose in the blood.
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  • Glucometers contain an enzyme, glucose oxidase, which catalyzes the reaction and increases the amount of reaction that occurs. Hilterbrand and Dick said they use this same enzyme to catalyze a reaction at the electrode in their test, in order to better detect the virus.
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  • Jason Upton, a molecular bioscience assistant professor, said that increasing the amount of reaction that occurs is very important.
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  • “If there's a piece of biological material in [the solution], it hits the electrode and blocks the signal but this enzyme will increase the signal we see,” Upton said. “That’s the basic difference between what we did before and what we are doing now.”
     
  • The team conducted their research with urine, a homogenous biomaterial. This limited their ability to test the detection of viruses when other biological material is present. Dick said that their method would need to be tested with different types of biological samples — such as blood, which carries multiple types of biological material — in order to fully understand the detection capabilities of their technology.
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  • Another key point in this research involves using antibodies, which the body naturally creates to fight disease, to identify targeted biomaterial that indicates the presence of the virus. Dick said that in order to specifically identify the virus of interest, he and Hilterbrand attached the enzyme to a primary antibody. This antibody will only attach itself to the virus the test is trying to diagnose.  
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  • “So, we can take our virus and other viruses and put them all in a solution. We can add these very specific antibodies and they will eventually find and stick to the virus,” Upton said.
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  • Hilterbrand and Dick said that although the technique presently works on just one virus, it could be adapted to detect a range of viruses, such as Zika or HIV.
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  • Hilterbrand and Dick said that there are many things that must be considered before their research is ready for clinical applications. Hilterbrand said that preventing blockage on the electrode, applying their technique to diseases with smaller antibodies and creating a easily transportable tool are areas the team will research more.
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  • “The dream would be to make a fairly robust diagnostic device that you can take out into the field,” Hilterbrand said.
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  • Even though they still have years of research ahead of them, these discoveries have laid the foundation for using biotechnology to create answers for major questions that plague society.  
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  • “The hope is that the research we’ve done now has laid some of the fundamental groundwork to further progress this technology and technique,” Hilterbrand said.