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Texas Hospitals Develop Rapid Test for Zika Virus

RNA test detects virus-specific sequences within hours

Collaboration between two Texas Medical Center institutions has resulted in the release of the country’s first hospital-based rapid tests for the Zika virus.

Pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists at Texas Children’s Hospital and Houston Methodist Hospital developed the Zika direct test in a matter of weeks. The tests are customized to each hospital’s diagnostic laboratory and provide results within several hours. They can be performed on blood, amniotic fluid, urine, or spinal fluid, according to James Versalovic, MD, PhD, pathologist-in-chief at Texas Children’s and leader of the Texas Children’s Zika test development team along with James Dunn, PhD, director of medical microbiology and virology at Texas Children’s.

Zika virus, which is mostly transmitted through mosquitoes, is a flavivirus that contains RNA as its genetic material. The new diagnostic test identifies virus-specific RNA sequences to directly detect Zika virus.

“With travel-associated cases of the Zika virus becoming more prevalent in the United States, coupled with the looming increase in mosquito exposure during spring and summer months, we must be prepared for a surge of Zika testing demand,” Versalovic said. “We must provide answers for anxious moms-to-be and families who may experience signs and symptoms or may simply have travel history to endemic areas.”

Before this test was developed, physicians faced the possibility of long delays of testing in local and state public health laboratories and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

James M. Musser, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Houston Methodist Hospital and co-leader of the Houston Methodist test-development team, said the test was designed to detect the genetic material of the virus (its RNA) so that virus is directly detected in pregnant women and any other adult or child with Zika virus infection. The test is specific and can distinguish Zika infection from dengue, West Nile, or chikungunya virus infections. Every viral particle contains genes in its RNA, and these RNA sequences are directly detected during pregnancy in amniotic fluid or anytime in blood, spinal fluid, or urine, Musser said.

“This is a significant development as health authorities are recommending all pregnant women who have traveled to a place with a Zika virus outbreak get tested,” he added.

Currently, only registered patients at Texas Children’s or Houston Methodist hospitals can receive the test, but the labs will consider referral testing from other hospitals and clinics in the future.

The test will initially be offered to patients with a positive travel history and symptoms consistent with acute Zika virus infection, such as a rash, arthralgias, or fever, or to asymptomatic pregnant women with a positive travel history to any of the affected countries. The World Health Organization is advising pregnant women to consult their doctors before traveling to places with Zika virus outbreaks and to consider delaying travel. The CDC issued similar guidelines to American women in January.

Source: Texas Children’s Hospital; February 23, 2016.

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