Google Science Fair awarded to a 16-year-old for her project on detecting Ebola

A 16-year-old teen, Olivia Hallisey from the United States won the 2015 Google Science Fair for her project on Ebola. Her project provides a fast, cheap, and stable test for the Ebola virus that gives easy-to-read results in less than 30 minutes possibly even before someone is showing symptoms.

According to her project description:

Current Ebola detection methods are complex, expensive, require unbroken refrigeration from manufacture to use and up to 12 hours from testing to confirmed diagnosis … The [test] provides rapid, inexpensive, accurate detection of Ebola viral antigens based on color change within 30 minutes in individuals prior to their becoming symptomatic and infectious.

There are many problem with several of the current Ebola tests, Hallisey wrote in her science fair description:

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.

Meanwhile, Hallisey could not test her invention on real Ebola patients or virus, she exhibited it could find a protein from the virus.

The Ebola test uses the typical components made up of antibodies (the labels that our immune system uses to mark bacteria and viruses as intruder) and chemicals that makes the test to change colors if these antibodies fasten to Ebola proteins in the sample.

The big change to make the test stable: To stabilize the chemicals on card stock, Hallisey used silk fibers that allowed them to stay at a room temperature for up to 3 weeks and still be efficient. Unlike the current Ebola tests, this does not require refrigeration.

To design a paper-based test that needs only a serum sample (the clear part of the blood after the red blood cells have been removed) and water to run, Hallisey then used these silk-stabilized chemicals.

While the anti-Ebola antibodies are in the center, the three chemicals used to find out the Ebola protein-bound antibodies are added to separate corners of the paper (2,3,4 in the diagram to the right).

The serum sample is added to the open corner (1) to run the test.

None animated GIF

Then, water is added to the chemicals, one by one, so that they flow down to the center of the test paper, something similar to how a paper towel absorbs up liquid even when only the corner of it is put in water.

The chemicals, serum sample, and water then merge in the right order and timing to give a positive or negative readout for the presence of Ebola proteins.

You can see the addition of the water at specific intervals in the time-lapse gif below, and how the chemicals combine to create a positive yellow reading:

It is critical to detect the virus infection in the patients early, because the sooner you start to treat someone the chances of their survival is more. It would be a game changer to have a test that is easy and can be stored at room temperature.

Currently, entering her junior year at Greenwich High School in Connecticut, Hallisey her test could also be adapted to detect Dengue, HIV, Lyme disease, and Yellow fever viruses, and even certain cancers.

The winners of the fifth annual Google Science Fair were announced live from Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California. Derek Muller, who created the science and engineering channel Veritasium hosted the event.

Hallisey won the grand prize by beating 22 other finalists. She takes home $50,000 in scholarship funding from Google.

The science fair is meant to invite and let the next generation of young scientists, innovators, and inventors worldwide compete with each other. All teens aged between 13 to 18 years are invited to apply. 22 finalists were narrowed down from thousands of participants who had applied from around the world that had came to the celebration.

Below are all the finalists that are lined up on stage:

Google Science Fair awarded to a 16-year-old for her project on detecting Ebola

Ahmed Mohamed, the Texas teen who was arrested at school after bringing in a clock to show his teachers paid a special visit to the science fair participants.