Virus or bacteria? UMass Boston researchers develop paper-based test for more accurate diagnosis

When you see two dark blue dots, as shown on the right of the slide, that means the patient has a virus. @ Colleen Locke

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States at least 2 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection, and at least 23,000 people die. Here at UMass Boston, Associate Professor of Engineering Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli, her students, and a visiting student from Spain have been working on a new paper-based test that can detect whether someone has a viral infection as opposed to a bacterial infection.

“Ultimately, we think it can help prevent the over prescribing of antibiotics and aid in reducing antibiotic resistance, which is a major problem. I know that whenever anyone in my household gets sick, it would be nice to know if they need antibiotics or not!” Hamad-Schifferli said.

Hamad-Schifferli is one of the corresponding authors of a new paper, published in Nanoscale, that shows how the UMass Boston team used the biomarker Myxovirus protein A (MxA) and what looks like a sort-of pregnancy test to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections. Cristina Rodriguez-Quijada, a third-year PhD student in biomedical engineering who also contributed to the Nanoscale paper, explains how when you see two dark blue dots, that means the patient has a virus.

“MxA is a protein that we have in blood,” Rodriguez-Quijada said. “If this is present in our bodies, this means that we have an infection. Depending on the concentration that you have and the intensity of the spot, you can distinguish if it’s a viral or bacterial infection.”

High concentrations of MxA mean a virus; lower concentrations signify the presence of bacteria.

“It is easy to do for children, but in adults this protein is at lower levels, so we used gold and silver nanoparticles to boost the sensitivity of the test,” Hamad-Schifferli said.

Brianna Leonardo, a 2019 graduate from UMass Boston’s Honors College and the Biology Department, is another one of the paper’s authors.

“When a patient comes in with an infection or an illness, it’s really hard to determine whether or not it’s bacterial or viral because they have very similar symptoms. And sometimes antibiotics are given for viral infections, which actually don’t treat the illness or help the patient at all. It sometimes kills the good bacteria that they have which they need,” Leonardo said.

For Leonardo, the work is personal: “I actually had a similar situation happen to me a year ago. I had an infection which they did not know was viral until four antibiotic prescriptions later. They thought they were giving me the wrong antibiotics when it was actually a viral infection from the beginning.”

This project was done in collaboration with the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. A student from ICN2, Lorenzo Russo, came and spent a few months in Hamad-Schifferli’s lab.

Hamad-Schifferli specializes in these types of tests. In 2017, she helped develop a paper-based test that can diagnose a Zika or dengue fever infection within 15 minutes. She’s also received funding to work on low-cost paper-based tests to diagnose other diseases.

Detection of resistance protein A (MxA) in paper-based immunoassays with surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy with AuAg nanoshells

Lorenzo Russo, Maria Sánchez-Purrà, Cristina Rodriguez-Quijada, Brianna M. Leonardo, Victor Puntes and Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli

Nanoscale, 2019,11, 10819-10827

DOI: 10.1039/C9NR02397F

Contact information:

Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli

Associate Professor of Engineering at UMass Boston

Tel: 617.287.6390

Hamad-Schifferli Group: NanoBiointerfaces Lab

University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston)

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