A STIRLING-BASED virologist is playing a key role in developing an Ebola-testing kit which could help prevent the spread of the disease.

Dr Manfred Weidmann, of Stirling University, is the only British university scientist involved in the new international collaboration which has invented a safe blood and saliva test for immediate use in Ebola-hit West Africa.

The solar-powered, suitcase-sized mobile testing laboratory can diagnose Ebola within six minutes and crucially can be set up in the field in under half an hour.

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This is critical because at present testing can only be done in glove boxes, which allow scientists to manipulate samples in a bio-safe manner, and these are usually only available in labs attached to hospitals, which may be some distance from an outbreak.

The new testing apparatus, already successfully piloted in Guinea, includes everything needed, including a glove box, in a mobile lab, and works using a paper based strip which can deliver quick results in a similar manner to a pregnancy test.

This will enable faster diagnosis, which means human contact with patients can be controlled quicker, giving less time for the virus to spread.

Dr Weidmann played a major role in developing the test, which is now being used in Conakry, Guinea, with two teams already trained and deployed and a further three teams expected to join them in the coming months.

Dr Weidmann, from Stirling University's School of Natural Sciences, said: "If 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."

The two-year Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) is part-funded by the European Union and led by the Swedish Public Health Agency. The project also had funding from the Wellcome Trust and is being led by the Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal. It has brought together scientists from across Europe and Africa to develop bedside rapid diagnostics for Ebola.

Similar strip-tests are under development elsewhere, but Dr Weidmann said the team's method had both improved sensitivity of detection and reliability.

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 - the 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.

"Our test can go to the limit of detection in just six minutes," added Dr Weidmann. "But the speed 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."

The research team is also the first to have trained local teams to conduct the on-site tests for themselves, he said.

"There are signs the epidemic is slowing although there remains lots of activity in Sierra Leone and Guinea," he added. "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."

Quick diagnosis can help with this, while the novel testing method is likely to be beneficial in tackling further outbreaks, he said.

"The race is on to tackle the epidemic and my research is as much about developing diagnostic tests for the future."