Institute virologist at front line of research into Ebola epidemic
Dr Manfred Weidmann, the Institute's senior virologist, is the only British University scientist involved in a new international collaboration focused on developing a biosafe point-of-care detection method for immediate use in fighting Ebola-hit West Africa.
Manfred has played a major role in the development of an Ebola rapid detection and diagnosis test, which is currently being used in Guinea in a project funded by the Wellcome Trust and led by the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal. Now he is adapting this into a paper strip method - similar to a pregnancy test - which could provide a simple, cost-effective diagnosis method for the deadly disease.
The two-year Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) is part-funded by the European Union and led by the Swedish Public Health Agency. It brings together scientists from across Europe and Africa to develop bedside rapid diagnostics for Ebola. Dr Weidmann will be working closely with colleagues in Public Health England.
Manfred notes that:"f you use a strip-test then you don't need a complicated detection device and this could then be developed into a bedside test. In the particular case of Ebola, however, the bedside test would most likely be a test in an adjacent laboratory as it is vital you take all steps to avoid contamination. There are similar strip-tests under development elsewhere, but the method we are working on is the most reliable as it ensures better sensitivity of detection."
Ebola is diagnosed by locating the virus's genetic material in the blood of a patient, but this requires laboratories with sophisticated devices working at three different temperatures. Using a method called Recombinase Polymerase Amplification (RPA), Dr Weidmann created tests which work at one temperature and can detect a range of Filoviruses, thread-like viruses causing hemorrhagic fever, of which Ebola is one. Working with researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal; the German Primate Centre; the Robert Koch Institute in Germany and Biocompany TwistDx, this method has been developed into a sophisticated point-of-care blood and saliva test, all contained within a solar-powered, mobile, suitcase-sized laboratory. Following a successful pilot in Conakry, Guinea, two teams have now been trained and deployed, with a further three teams expected to join them in the coming months.
"Our test can go to the limit of detection in just six minutes,"added Dr Weidmann. "But the speed it takes isn't the only point. Ebola is so infectious that you have to use glove boxes. Most of these are based in makeshift tented laboratories attached to hospitals. Our mobile lab is just that, totally mobile. It includes the glove box and you can take it to any location, set it up in half an hour and then start testing.
"I'm very proud of what we have been able to achieve so far, especially the fact we are the first research team to have empowered and trained local teams to conduct the on-site tests for themselves. The race is on to tackle the epidemic and my research is as much about developing diagnostic tests for the future. There are signs the epidemic is slowing although there remains lots of activity in Sierra Leone and Guinea. It is impossible to know how long it will continue as it's all about human contact and if you can't stop that then you can't prevent the disease."
The suitcase laboratory developed in Manfred's project : Point of care diagnostic testing for Ebola virus disease in Ebola treatment centers (funding: Welcome Trust programme Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC)) is on display at the Science Museum in London.