Research team from the Yousef Jameel Science and Technology Research Center
In response to the rapid spread of Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), a research team from the Yousef Jameel Science and Technology Research Center at the American University in Cairo (AUC) has designed a novel test capable of detecting all genotypes of HCV in less than sixty minutes and at one-tenth of the cost of traditional tests. “Our test is sensitive and inexpensive, and it does not need sophisticated equipment,” explained Hassan Azzazy, professor of chemistry and head of the research team.
The AUC research team, NanoDiagX, has developed a liquid chemistry test that can diagnose hepatitis C using gold nanoparticles. The first hepatitis C tests became available in Egypt in 1992, but these are either very costly or lack accuracy. The test devised by AUC’s research team efficiently reduces the two-step testing process carried out of over a number of days, to a one- step process that takes less than an hour. Additionally, the test can be performed and at a fraction of the cost of traditional diagnostic protocols. Azzazy feels the new option makes diagnostics much more accessible to the public and therefore, more effective in helping Egyptians stop the spread of the highly communicable disease. “Detecting HCV during the first six months raises the recovery rate to 90 percent. Little is done on the national level to combat the alarming prevalence of hepatitis C in Egypt,” said Azzazy.
In 2011, the NanoDiagX team’s strategy to bring the innovative diagnostic test to market came in first at the seventh Arab Technology Business Plan Competition. The business plan won third place at the Intel Global Challenge at the University of California, Berkeley. The AUC research team has filed three patents in the United States, and their work has been cited in a number of scientific journals. “We are currently negotiating with a number of diagnostic companies to turn our innovation into a product,” said Azzazy.
With approximately 10 million HCV patients, Egypt has the highest prevalence of hepatitis C in the world. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the blood-borne pathogen infects almost 500,000 people in the country each year. According to the World Health Organization, the strong homogeneity of HCV subtypes found in Egypt (HCV4a) suggests an epidemic spread of HCV in the country. “Hepatitis C is a major national problem, and I believe that the responsibility of the scientific research community is to develop innovative and practical solutions that can help solve such problems,” announced Azzazy.
Some studies suggest that the high prevalence of HCV in Egypt is largely due to the usage of contaminated reusable needles and syringes from the 1950s to the 1980s, when the bilharzia parasite was prevalent and disposable needles were nonexistent. While this explains the prevalence of the disease among the older generation, there continues to be a high transmission rate due to poor hygienic practices and careless handling of blood and blood products. However, Azzazy sees the main problem as lack of awareness. “We [the AUC research team] initiated awareness campaigns at universities, as well as in rural areas,” he said, adding that the campaign involved free hepatitis C testing as well as the distribution of informative brochures.
NanoDiagX is attempting to use the same technology for the detection of other diseases, including cancer and tuberculosis. The team has also initiated a long-term project to find a cure for hepatitis C, and its outcome so far seems promising. “Using computer modeling and novel chemical synthesis strategies, we are trying to develop a drug that can prevent the virus from entering the cell,” explained Azzazy.