PEF scientist develops test to identify infection by Zika virus
By DEBORAH A. MILES
Among the test tubes, microscopes and highly sophisticated equipment found at the state Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center Laboratory in Albany, a type of energy prevails in this scientific setting.
That energy is the devotion, skill and intelligence of the PEF members who work behind-the-scenes, making a difference in the lives of New Yorkers and people around the world.
One member in particular, Susan J. Wong, PhD., who is the director of the Diagnostic Immunology Laboratory, recently devised an assay, a semi-quantitative test to detect the presence of antibodies to Zika virus and dengue virus. This new assay will provide a faster diagnosis of infection compared to the tests which have been used during the past year.
“Part of our responsibility is to respond to emerging infections with a new disease by having tests available. If the tests are not doing a good enough job, we try to develop something better,” Wong said.
That’s precisely what happened when Wong realized the Zika test needed to be improved to accurately get results in a day, instead of a process that takes up to three weeks.
Wong invited a former Wadsworth co-worker, Pei-Yong Shi, PhD., a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, to collaborate with her on the new Zika assay.
“We pooled our resources and came up with something pretty good,” Wong said. “I have been privileged to have amazing resources available at the Wadsworth Center, and good scientists around for discussions.”
While the news of the test has been well-received from other scientists, physicians and patients, Wong described the Zika testing and devising a new assay as one of her biggest challenges since she started at the lab in 1994.
“Zika is an outbreak unlike any other. During the past year, our lab received approximately10,000 samples to analyze. From April through August in 2016, we were overwhelmed. We couldn’t get the testing done fast enough. We had to focus on Zika testing and improving Zika diagnostics to the exclusion of other things.”
Wong said the testing for the Zika virus has “decreased somewhat” and the addition of three employees has helped, along with physicians sending some samples to commercial labs for testing.
“It is also challenging to get the testing completed while training people. We have to make sure they are competent with clinical test procedures before they are turned loose to do the patient testing. It’s quite a scramble, but I am delighted to have the new folks in our lab to help out with the workload,” Wong said.
Zika was first detected in 1947 in the Zika Forest of Uganda where it was isolated. It spread to South America, Central America and Brazil in 2015, before being detected in the U.S. Only one in five people infected with the Zika virus will get sick. The symptoms are usually mild with a fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). But there have been increased cases of a birth defect known as microcephaly that is associated with the Zika virus infection among pregnant women.
“The mosquito is an indiscriminate feeder,” Wong said. “The Zika virus found in humans is now causing infection in the monkey populations in South America.”
Wong said diagnostic success may involve collaborating with other scientists throughout the U.S., Canada and England. She also holds two patents for her work on the West Nile virus.
Thanks to Wong and Shi, and the staff at the Diagnostic Immunology Lab, the new test to detect the Zika virus will be available in early March.
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