$3.7M NIH grant funds development of novel biosensor technology for diagnosing viral infections

Electrical engineer Ali Yanik is leading a team of infectious disease experts developing a low-cost, easy-to-use platform for diagnosing viral infections in point-of-care settings

Tim Stephens | UCSC | December 16, 2020

 Ali Yanik

For over ten years, Ali Yanik has b]een working to develop novel biosensor technology to provide rapid, low-cost testing for disease diagnostics and precision medicine. Now, with a five-year, $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, he and his collaborators are poised to complete the development and validation of a prototype and begin testing it in the field for detection of dengue fever, yellow fever, and Zika virus infections.

“We’re confident in being able to do this and get it into the field for testing,” said Yanik, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz. “It’s pretty revolutionary because this is a very simple tool, and yet it is also very sensitive.”

Zika, dengue, and yellow fever are widespread viral diseases transmitted by mosquitoes in tropical and subtropical areas. The lack of accurate and rapid field diagnosis is a serious obstacle to controlling these diseases in areas where they are endemic. Sophisticated laboratory tests based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method can diagnose active infections, but these tests are not readily available in developing countries. As a result, many cases are discovered late, allowing uncontrolled transmission and massive outbreaks.

Yanik’s novel diagnostic platform uses nanotechnology, building on his earlier biosensor research using arrays of tiny “nanoholes” (about 200 nanometers in diameter) in a metallic membrane. Most recently, his research group added several other innovations to achieve high sensitivity with a simple, rapid test called the “ultraSensitive PCR-free Detection (SPeeD)” assay. Whereas PCR detects viral genetic material (RNA), the SPeeD assay detects viral proteins (the antigens which trigger an immune response in the body).

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