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South Bend, IN Company Developing Rapid Ebola Detection

It was just a few days ago that New Jersey Governor Chris Christine made his stance clear on anyone who's traveled to western Africa; quarantine for 21 days. The decision put the governor under fire but a company here in South Bend might be able to come to the rescue. They have a device, called NESDEP IU, which can identify whether a sample has Ebola or not.

"We know we can test for any molecular material," Les Ivey, President and CEO of F³ said. "Ebola is an RNA virus so it has a strand of RNA and we can detect that. The job of our NESDEP device is to extract that RNA from the virus. If it matches with the Ebola then we know we had a successful detection."

The device is encased in a large box that was originally built for military purposes...rocket launchers to be precise. It's pretty big at about 50 pounds, but not huge, making mobility it's greatest asset. That way it could be easily taken to an airport or even in the back of a military vehicle to take to an area of western Africa.

"We designed the unit so, if it had to be, it could be floated out to Lake Michigan for a sample," Ivey said. "It can be battery powered and it's suitable for places like an airport or put it in the back of a Humvee so you can take it to places people could have contracted Ebola and making treatment easier."

NESDEP IU wasn't designed to identify Ebola specifically, but it very well could. The device is a screening tool to test contaminated materials to see if a virus is present. So if you have a sample, the device essentially beats the cellular material until there's nothing left but molecular material in the RNA. It then compares that information to data placed on a bio-chip to see if they match up. If they do, then the sample is identified as a match. F³ has used the device to identify issues in the environment, like contaminated water, or for food safety.

"We have two E. coli tests available for drinking water," Ivey said. "We have three for food safety including listeria, salmonella and E. coli."

They are also conducting clinical trials on the devices ability to identify Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The theory is since they can test for any molecular material, identifying an infection like MRSA or a virus like Ebola should be easy.

The beauty of NESDEP is in its speed. The CDC says identifying a contaminated sample of Ebola can take anywhere from 12 to 48 hours. Ivey says NESDEP can identify a contaminated sample in just 90 minutes. However, NESDEP is not approved for diagnosing individuals. It can only take samples from things like a blanket or fluids excreted from a person believed to be affected and test those. This process could save valuable time in the treatment process of a person with Ebola.

"If you were in a transportation hub with many aircraft and two or three of them have possible infected individuals, you want to take those people and get them through the process as quickly as possible," Ivey said. "Otherwise, you have thousands and thousands of people exposed. From a medical point of view, the faster a clinician knows someone is sick, the faster they can act. Twelve hours, especially in an RNA virus like Ebola, could mean the difference between a good outcome and a bad outcome from what we've read."

Also, if NESDEP is taken to areas of western Africa, where sterile conditions may not be available, they can do the test with "dirty" samples. Meaning they don't need to go through the a lengthy process of purifying the sample.

"Imagine a river flowing fast," Shaunasee Kocen, Director of biology and bio-safety officer at F³ said. "Only things that can attach to that rock or that probe are going to stay there. Everything else will wash away. If you look at a human sample, it shouldn't have any bacteria or viruses. But if it does, we want to make sure we wash everything out to get a clean signal. Other technologies like polymerase chain reaction (PCR), you have to get a biologist, someone trained to do this in a clean lab in a clean room. Everything has to be very clean and precise to get what they want. We just put it in our chip and wash away all the impurities."

But in order for F³ to continue their studies, they need more Ebola information. They are not in need of the actual virus to do their studies. They are not equipped to handle a level four bio-hazard like Ebola at their facility in South Bend. So they've reached out to local state representatives and Senator Joe Donnelly's office had this to say:

"Senator Donnelly's office is encouraged that Hoosier companies are using their skills and expertise to try and prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. The senator's office has directed F³ to contact the CDC to see if their technology might be able to help address this epidemic."

And among the other benefits of NESDEP, anyone can use it.

"It's easy enough that anyone can do it," Kocen said. "It's portable and it can go into the field. We've spent so much time shipping our samples to the lab so as long as you can get a car charger and a car, then you can get our sample. If you can use a luer lock than you can use our device."

This technology is relatively new and comes with a price. Each NESDEP device costs $50,000 and each testing kit can cost between $20-$50. However, Ivey doesn't think you can put a price on rapid detection.

"There's no medications or vaccines proven to be effective," Ivey said. "It's important to identify immediately and begin the process of treating the patient as soon as possible. The reason for a rapid test process is to diagnose the presence of the virus and begin the process of treating the patient."

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