Bioengineers at Rice University and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston have developed a simple, highly sensitive and efficient test for the diarrheal disease cryptosporidiosis that could have great impact on global health.
Results from the diagnostic developed by the lab of Rice bioengineer Rebecca Richards-Kortum are read from a paper strip that resembles a pregnancy test. Lines on the strip tell whether samples taken from the stool of a patient contain genetic DNA from the parasite that causes the disease.
The research is detailed online in a new paper in the American Chemical Society journal Analytical Chemistry.
“Diarrheal illness is a leading cause of global mortality and morbidity,” said Richards-Kortum, director of the Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies. “Parasites such as cryptosporidium are more common causes of prolonged diarrhea. Current laboratory tests are not sensitive, are time-consuming and require days before results are available. A rapid, affordable, accurate point-of-care test could greatly enhance care for the underserved populations who are most affected by parasites that cause diarrheal illness.”
A. Clinton White, director of the Infectious Disease Division at UTMB, asked Richards-Kortum to help develop a diagnostic test for the parasite. “I’ve been working with cryptosporidium for more than 20 years, so I wanted to combine her expertise in diagnosis with our clinical interest,” he said. “Recent studies in Africa and South Asia by people using sophisticated techniques show this organism is a very common, underappreciated cause of diarrheal disease in under resourced countries.”
The parasite is common in the United States, he said, but less than 5 percent of an estimated 750,000 cases are diagnosed every year. In 1993, an outbreak of cryptosporidium in the water supply sickened 400,000 people in Greater Milwaukee, he said.
Lead author Zachary Crannell, a graduate student based at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative, said the disease, usually transmitted through drinking water, accounts for 20 percent of childhood diarrheal deaths in developing countries. Cryptosporidiosis is also a threat to people with HIV whose immune system is less able to fight it off, he said.