Emory freshmen determined to build a fast, portable Ebola test

By Kimber Williams | Sept. 26, 2014

Story image

Inspired by a biology assignment, Emory freshmen Rostam Zafari and Brian Goldstone turned their idea for a faster, less expensive Ebola test into a crowdfunding campaign that is gathering steam. Emory Photo/Video

Two Emory freshmen have turned a classroom challenge into an exercise in real-life social entrepreneurship, advancing their idea to create a new method of testing for the Ebola virus into an online crowdfunding campaign that is already gaining steam.

The result? A student-powered proposal to develop REDS, Rapid Ebola Detection Strips, a portable, fast, less expensive, user-friendly approach to detecting the virus in the field.

It was on the first day of classes this semester, during an Introduction to Biology course, that Brian Goldstone and Rostam Zafari heard Senior Biology Lecturer Rachelle Spell mention a way to earn extra-credit: Learn how doctors currently test for the Ebola virus and come up with a faster, more affordable idea.

Though Spell was quick to point out that she’s no expert on Ebola testing, she knew that testing methods for many diseases often utilize a basic knowledge of molecular biology. Explaining the science behind an alternate method would be worth bonus points on the following week’s quiz.

Her inspiration came straight from the day’s headlines — special ambulances bringing the first Ebola patients to be treated in the United States to Emory University Hospital last month had driven past her classroom.

“Every year that I teach ‘Intro to Biology,’ I want to keep the material fresh and provide a new application of the basic biology that they’re learning,” Spell explains. “Over the years, that has taken the form of HIV and even global climate change, but this semester I knew I had to use Ebola.”

Instead of relying on costly testing equipment, typically situated in hospitals or medical centers, “I suggested that they think about something that could be used in the field, to essentially design a very effective, safe and cheap test for Ebola,” she recalls.

Spell expected to see creativity. But she wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

“Brian and Rostam came in to see me during my office hours,” Spell recalls. “I started with my usual banter and they announced, ‘We wanted to tell you that we took your challenge very seriously — we’ve created this test and we’re going to patent it.’”

“They knew there were other groups out there pursuing similar ideas and wanted to act quickly,” she says. “Frankly, it took me a few seconds to catch up.”

Tackling the Ebola challenge

Whether in the classroom or the wrestling arena, Brian Goldstone loves a challenge.

“When I heard about this opportunity, I knew I had to try it,” says Goldstone, an 18-year-old from Newport Beach, California, who arrived at Emory this fall as a pre-med major.

Goldstone was no stranger to the world of medicine. His father is an endocrinologist and the chief medical director for an insurance company. Before starting college, Goldstone had already secured intern experience with an anesthesiologist. So when the class challenge came, he had an idea where to start.

A review of current tests for the Ebola virus revealed a system that was generally expensive and cumbersome, particularly in low-resource settings. “Right now, in Africa you have professionals going into these remote villages that aren’t even close to hospitals, taking blood samples, and bringing them back to run through a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) machine,” he says.

PCR is a common method used to amplify segments of DNA and can be an expensive investment. “We know that many people infected with Ebola die before reaching these hospitals,” he adds. “Some will actually refuse to go since hospitals are often associated with death in Western Africa.” 

The gold standard of testing for the Ebola virus in the United States is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) RT-PCR assay, which was used by Emory physicians in deciding when to discharge two patients from Emory University Hospital. Other PCR-based tests are also now being evaluated at Emory.

Goldstone had in mind something faster, affordable, portable and user-friendly. “I began thinking about those strips they use to test for urinary tract infections, wondering if the science could be adapted for Ebola,” he says.

Applying to live in campus housing at Emory, Goldstone had found himself “matched” with Raoul Hall, among the university’s newest living-learning residential communities. The residence hall, which opened in August, offers a special focus on social entrepreneurship.

That’s where he met 18-year-old Rostam Zafari, who not only shared an ambition to pursue medicine and a passion for wrestling, but was also taking Spell’s biology class this semester.

Zafari knew something about the world of medical research, too. Not only had he already won several medical-related internships — including exposure to running PCR equipment — his father, Abarmard Maziar Zafari, is a professor of cardiology who teaches at Emory School of Medicine and is chief of cardiology at Atlanta Veterans Medical Center.

And Zafari was deeply motivated by humanitarian causes: Shortly before the start of the semester, his best friend, 18-year-old Abraham Pishevar II, was killed in a plane crash in Ohio.

Social justice issues had been his friend’s passion. Building a better Ebola test would have thrilled him, says Zafari, who has dedicated their project in his memory.

Lessons in social-entrepreneurship

Working with a Raoul Hall student advisor, an MBA candidate who happened to have experience as a public health analyst for the United Nations, the pair began to research and shape their proposal.

There were late-night conversations with post-docs and consultations with campus resources in Emory’s Department of Biology and the School of Medicine. “Finally, we got confirmation that our science was sound and, in theory, might actually work,” Goldstone. “We just needed to test it.”

Enter Justine Leipkalns, an Emory College biology instructor and post-doc student who has studied molecular pathogenesis and immunology. “With Justine’s help, we had a team and were ready to launch our fundraising phase, which will help us develop a prototype for testing,” says Goldstone, who explains that the first stage of that can be accomplished without actually using a live virus.

Although the team isn’t publicly revealing the specifics of their method just yet — the field is flush with competition at the moment — they have already videotaped an appeal to raise funds for the creation and testing of a prototype.

While there are some experimental testing strips now being used to attempt early detection of the Ebola virus, “they typically detect the virus when symptoms are present — our goal is to detect it during incubation, when people don’t yet know they’re sick, to help stop Ebola’s rapid spread,” Goldstone adds.

The road to a prototype

On Sept. 12, Goldstone and Zafari launched a video appeal for REDS on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. As of Sept. 26, they’ve received pledges for $8,620, over halfway to their goal of $14,500. The online campaign will continue until Oct. 12.

“We have access to the materials, the experts, and the literature of Emory's excellent medical research facilities, they explain in their video. "Since we found ourselves at the crossroads of the right time and the right place, we felt obligated to take action.”

“The next step is finding a lab willing to let us do this project,” Zafari says. “Then we’ll focus on getting our proof of concept, developing a prototype and optimizing it to the highest quality to endure temperature fluctuations and all the different kinds of variables seen along the West Africa coast.”

For Zafari and Goldstone, the past month has been an intense-but-thrilling introduction to college life. “It feels like we’re always working on our project — in the lobby, between classes, late at night,” explains Zafari, who describes himself as “happily exhausted.”

Yet he’s already found the experience rewarding: “My passion has always been humanitarian causes,” he says. “ The right to medical care? I view that as a human right. I think everyone should have the opportunity to succeed. It’s something I want to spend my life addressing.”

As for Spell, she’s delighted to see a classroom assignment amplified into a larger learning experience into the realm of biotechnology.

“They are normal students, they have to keep studying,” says Spell, who was inspired to ask one of the physicians who has cared for Emory University Hospital’s Ebola patients to come speak to her class.

“Statistically, we know that biotech is very competitive and has a very low likelihood of working out,” she adds. “But to even attempt something like this offers a great learning experience.”

As for those extra-credit points on their first “Intro to Biology” quiz?

They earned them.