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Ahmed Abd El Wahed
Ahmed Abd El Wahed

Scientists Develop Test-in-a-Box for Chikungunya Virus

Ahmed Abd El Wahed
Ahmed Abd El Wahed

As mosquito-borne viruses like Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya continue to spread across the globe, rapid diagnosis and treatment are more important than ever. In a recent paper published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, German researchers describe an inexpensive, portable test that could help speed up Chikungunya diagnosis in remote areas.

The word “chikungunya” means “to become contorted” in the Kimakonde language of southeastern Africa, and refers to the curled-up posture of people in pain. The symptoms of Chikungunya virus (CHIKV)—joint pain, muscle pain, and fatigue—are similar to those of a bad flu and will generally resolve on their own after a few days or weeks. But they also look a lot like the initial symptoms of Dengue fever, which can be fatal unless it’s treated quickly. The two illnesses are carried by the same mosquito species, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, and are found in the same parts of the world. Identifying which of these viruses a patient has can be a matter of life and death.

Current CHIKV tests rely on polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which chemically amplifies any traces of RNA or DNA in a sample to make them easier to identify. But PCR is time- and cost-intensive and requires refrigeration, which makes it an impractical choice in remote areas. An international team of researchers decided to see if they could do better.

They set PCR aside in favor of a technique called reverse transcriptase recombinase polymerase amplification (RT-RPA), which they hoped would also amplify the RNA of the Chikungunya virus (CHIKV). To test their assay, the team ran samples from 58 patients with suspected CHIKV infection and another 20 whose infection had been confirmed through both a PCR scan and their new RT-RPA.

The results were promising indeed. The patients’ samples had included 18 different CHIKV strains, and the RT-RPA spotted them all. The new test correctly diagnosed 36 patients, and didn’t return a single false positive. The RT-RPA was slightly less sensitive than the PCR, but it was also faster and more shelf-stable.

“The CHIKV RPA assay presented here is a promising tool for CHIKV diagnostics at the point of need,” the authors write in their paper.

Still, the test isn’t ready for primetime just yet. In its present incarnation, the assay requires a lot of steps and pipetting, and costs around $5. Ideally, the researchers say, the process would be even simpler and max out at $1. They’re continuing to refine their product, and recommend combining it with Dengue and Zika tests, which “…would improve outbreak investigations, since the three viruses induce the same clinical picture upon infection and increasingly co-circulate in many parts of the world.”
 
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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Live Smarter
Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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