Harvard, MIT Researchers Develop Rapid Diagnostic for Virus Detection

Thanks to research by Lee Gehrke, a professor of health sciences and technology, and other researchers at Harvard and MIT, viruses like Ebola may be more rapidly detected and tracked than ever before. The rapid diagnostic, which can detect deadly pathogens in under 30 minutes, is part of an interdisciplinary project supported by the National Institutes of Health.

This invention has grown out years of research at Gehrke’s lab on RNA viruses, viruses that have one-stranded RNA rather than DNA as their genome. Ebola is an example of an RNA virus. The researchers are pairing the rapid diagnostic with a phone application to allow the spread of the viruses to be tracked via real-time maps.


Gehrke said that the goal of the researchers was to develop a rapid diagnostic test that can perform in under 30 minutes and can be used as a point-of-care device to evaluate patients with fevers, which can indicate many different underlying diseases.

“If a patient comes into a clinic and has a fever, you want to be able to rule out some pathogens,” he said. “In West Africa, there are a number of viruses that would present as fever, including Ebola, Lassa, and Marburg, so it is very useful to get a very quick idea of what the patient is suffering from.”


While the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has ascended to international media headlines in recent months, Gehrke warned against ignoring other dangerous viruses.

“Ebola is a terrible disease, but it is not the only one that I think we should be prepared for,” Gehrke added. “There are other emerging viruses that we also need to have a great sense of preparedness for.”

The device is specific for several viruses, including Ebola and dengue fever, and it can detect more than one pathogen at once, according to Gehrke.

“By detecting whether a person’s fever is in fact a symptom of Ebola, the rapid diagnostic can help better quarantine people,” said Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli, MIT professor and senior collaborator on this project.

Gehrke also attested to the value of rapid detection of the virus.

“Being able to detect the virus and identify the people or environments that are contaminated is very important for reducing or stopping the spread. Early detection is important for treatment,” he said.


Unlike other diagnostic tools, the Harvard and MIT-developed device can be operated cheaply by personnel with little training in a variety of settings. Competing approaches, like polymerase chain reaction, require more time and expensive equipment.

“This approach gives much greater flexibility, cost control, and adaptability in responding to outbreaks of different emerging pathogens in different parts of the world,” Gehrke wrote in an email.

Gehrke attributed this flexibility in part to the ability of the device to operate without power or refrigeration. The device does not require specialized chemicals, equipment, or training, researchers said.