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New Technique Allows Quick Detection of Virus in Bodily Fluids

Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard researchers have created a new tool that better prepares the CRISPR-based diagnostic tool, SHERLOCK, for rapid response to viral outbreaks.

The updates allow clinicians to quickly and cheaply diagnose patient samples and track epidemic spread directly in bodily fluids, eliminating the need for excessive lab equipment and allow more rapid efforts to be conducted in the field. SHERLOCK has also been updated to better distinguish between related viral species, allowing it to identify mutations.

“Rapid and sensitive tools are critical for diagnosing, surveilling, and characterizing an infection,” Pardis Sabeti, an institute member at Broad, a professor at Harvard University, and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, as well as senior study author, said. “We’ve taken the SHERLOCK technology and optimized it in the context of these very applied biological scenarios.”

Sabeti’s team hopes to build on this further and seeks to test SHERLOCK with Nigerian collaborators, as a means of addressing their recent Lassa fever outbreak. The recent effort was led by Harvard graduate student Catherine Freije and postdoctoral scientist Cameron Myhrvold, who developed a simpler method for an enzyme involved in the platform to detect its target directly in bodily fluid samples.

“In places like South America, many similar viruses co-circulate, and having a diagnostic that can quickly tell the difference is critical,” Freije said. “With this new assay, a patient can give a single blood or urine sample, it can be analyzed in just a few reactions to determine which virus it contains, and then that patient can get started on the right treatment.”

Already, the team has shown SHERLOCK’s sensitivity to mutations that occur in something as small as a single nucleotide and designed assays that could identify Zika virus mutations associated with microcephaly. Broad hopes to make the SHERLOCK diagnostic platform easily accessible in the developing world.

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