With approximately 10 million hepatitis C (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.
In response to this rapidly spreading virus, an AUC research team at the Yousef Jameel Science and Technology Research Center, led by Hassan Azzazy, professor of chemistry, has designed a novel test capable of detecting all genotypes of HCV in less than one hour, instead of days, and at one-tenth of the cost of traditional tests.
“Our test is sensitive and inexpensive, and it does not need sophisticated equipment,” explained Azzazy, adding that 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.”
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 since 1992, but these are either very costly or lack accuracy. The test devised by Azzazy’s research team efficiently reduces the two-step testing process, which may take days, to one step that takes less than an hour and is at a much lower price. In 2011, the team’s innovative diagnostic test was ranked first in the seventh Arab Technology Business Plan Competition and won third place at the seventh Intel Global Challenge at the University of California, Berkeley.
“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,” said 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 bilharzia 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 including sharing personal items 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.
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.