Why is Olivia Hallisey celebrating? Because she just kicked butt at the Google Science Fair and took home gold.
The Connecticut high school student recently won the grand prize in the 16-18 category at the 2015 Google Science Fair. Her project developing a quick, easy, and accurate test for Ebola won the judges’ hearts for its potential to make a big change in the world.
Olivia’s project stemmed from the devastating Ebola outbreak that spread across parts of West Africa.
As is the case with many diseases, the earlier we’re able to diagnose Ebola, the better the patients’ chances are for recovery and for reducing the risk of further spreading the disease.
Part of what makes Ebola particularly devastating is that early diagnosis is especially difficult because the early symptoms aren’t particularly unique. Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has to say:
“Diagnosing Ebola in a person who has been infected for only a few days is difficult because the early symptoms, such as fever, are nonspecific to Ebola infection and often are seen in patients with more common diseases, such as malaria and typhoid fever. … Ebola virus is detected in blood only after onset of symptoms … It may take up to three days after symptoms start for the virus to reach detectable levels.”
And according to Olivia, the problem with current Ebola testing is that the tests require special tools and take half a day to produce a diagnosis:
“Current methods of Ebola detection utilize enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (“ELISA”) detection kits which cost approximately $1.00 each, require complex instrumentation, trained medical professionals to administer, and up to 12 hours from testing to diagnosis.”
But what if there were a way to reduce the complexity of the ELISA test for Ebola? That could save lives.
Currently, Ebola tests are really complicated, involving vials and blood samples and other fancy lab equipment, but they also require 12 hours of temperature regulation that can really only be achieved in a lab setting.
Olivia took the same components, used silk fibers to stabilize them, and put the whole test and all its laboratory components on a piece of card stock.
Here’s what her innovation looks like in action:
Soon, testing for Ebola could be as simple as just adding water.
In Olivia’s version of the test, chemicals used to detect the Ebola protein-bound antibodies are placed at three corners of the paper with anti-Ebola antibodies in the center.
Adding drops of water to the end of each arm of the card stock test moves the chemicals toward the center of the paper. Once the chemicals, the serum sample (blood) from the person being tested, and the water combine, the color in the center changes to give either a positive or negative reading.
In this case, a positive reading is when the test goes from blue to yellow (as you see in the GIF above).
The real breakthrough here, though, is that Olivia’s innovation has made it possible for people to test for Ebola in their own homes.
This could eventually lead to easier, cheaper, faster tests for other diseases.
Given that ELISA tests can be used to detect a variety of antibodies, it’s possible that Olivia’s project could pave the way for at-home testing for HIV, Lyme disease, celiac disease, or even food allergies.
Olivia was awarded a $50,000 scholarship and some much-deserved praise.
She told CNBC she plans on attending college and working for a global health organization: “I want to look everywhere, go anywhere to help people, I’m really excited about the future.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy took to Twitter to congratulate the young scientist.
Olivia and the other finalists had the chance to meet another young science enthusiast clock-making teen Ahmed Mohamed.
While the tests aren’t being mass produced and distributed just yet, her work sets out an important proof of concept.
Being able to cut the time it takes to get results from 12 hours to just 30 minutes is nothing to scoff at, especially when the results come with similar accuracy to the standard lab test. But there’s work to do before it goes from a creative project to a true weapon in the fight against infectious disease.