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UVic scientist developing tools to fight Zika virus

The tools include a low-cost strip that uses nanotechnology to detect Zika in saliva and a smartphone app to find mosquito larvae in stagnant water.

UVic chemist Alexandre Brolo is developing two new tools to help in the fight against the Zika virus.

Courtesy UVic

UVic chemist Alexandre Brolo is developing two new tools to help in the fight against the Zika virus.

As a child growing up in Brazil, Alexandre Brolo remembers seeing dengue fever outbreaks in his home country.

Every year, he said authorities would struggle to control the mosquito-borne illness, which can cause high fever, rash, and debilitating muscle and joint pain— even severe bleeding and death in severe cases.

“Now Zika came along, which is spread in a similar way,” Brolo told Metro. “It’s just amazing that the authorities keep doing the same thing each year but the problem is still there.”

A member of the National Health Foundation fumigates against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, vector of the dengue, chikungunya fever and Zika viruses, in Gama, 45 km south of Brasilia, on February 17, 2016.

Evarista Sa/AFP/Getty Images

A member of the National Health Foundation fumigates against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, vector of the dengue, chikungunya fever and Zika viruses, in Gama, 45 km south of Brasilia, on February 17, 2016.

Now a chemist at the University of Victoria, Brolo has received $50,000 in funding from Grand Challenges Canada, a federally funded body that supports public health innovations, to develop two new tools aimed at helping in the fight against the Zika virus.

One of the tools is a low-cost plastic strip coated with nanoparticles that change colours when it comes into contact with infected saliva. Connected to a smartphone, the device uploads the time and geographical location of the infected person to a database, he said.

Brolo said he chose to create a saliva screening-tool rather than blood, because blood samples require more technical expertise and can be hazardous.

The saliva tool can be used in the field by workers with minimal training and can upload information in real time, which he said is key to containing outbreaks.

“That’s the kind of information that’s important for people who are at the frontlines,” he said. “The surveillance in real time is what government officials need to contain the outbreak.”

Brolo and his colleagues are also developing an app that uses a smartphone camera to detect the presence of mosquito larvae in stagnant water, while also recording the time and location of the photo.

With that information, he said governments can use insecticides to kill mosquitoes in that area before an outbreak begins.

Brolo said he's hopeful that as tests progress, more funding will be available to scale up both projects and implement them on a larger scale.

The Zika virus, which spreads mainly through the bite of a tropical mosquito called called Aedes aegypti, causes only a mild and brief illness in most people. But in the last year, infections in pregnant women, mostly in Brazil, have been strongly linked to fetal deaths and to potentially severe birth defects, like microcephaly.

With files from The Canadian Press.

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