Researchers from Hamilton's McMaster University have created a new test that can identify diseases like hepatitis C and superbugs like C difficile much earlier than ever before.

Representatives from the university's Biointerfaces Institute say the new speedier test can be a key tool in fighting the spread of disease since quicker identification can mean earlier quarantine and earlier treatment. They say the test is cost effective enough to help bring widespread testing to any parts of the developing world dealing with a dangerous pathogen outbreak.

"If there is an outbreak, we could provide a test to test people before they have symptoms," said Yingfu Li, a professor in the departments of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, chemistry and chemical biology.

"We can now catch infection at the earliest time."

The test is a new way to detect the smallest traces of metabolites, proteins or fragments of DNA. Researchers say the new method can pick up any compound that might signal the presence of infectious disease, be it respiratory or gastrointestinal.

How does it work?

Scientists developed a "molecular device" that's made of DNA that can be switched "on" by a specific molecule of their choice, like a DNA molecule representing a genome of a virus.

That leads to an easily spotted, "amplified signal" – which in this case means a solution that will glow when a person's test comes back positive.

Whereas current tests need somewhere in the ballpark of 10,000 to 100,000 cells from a disease to show up on a test, this new method only needs a few hundred, Li says.

"The test has the best sensitivity ever reported for a detection system of this kind," said McMaster Biointerfaces Director John Brennan. "It is as much as 10,000 times more sensitive than other detection systems."

Researchers are also touting that the method does not require complicated equipment so tests can be run at room temperature under ordinary conditions. They're even working on a portable paper version of the test, which would eliminate the need for any lab instruments.

Test useful at home and abroad

That's huge for two reasons. The first is that physicians could use it in developing countries as a relatively cheap way to test for disease during an outbreak, and quarantine carriers long before they show symptoms.

But it's also useful at home, as a way to test for things like C difficle in nursing homes, Li says. It could also lessen wait times for testing, and bring costs down considerably for the medical system.

"Cost is a huge issue here," Li said.

Dr. Ian Crandall from University of Toronto's department of pharmaceutical sciences told CBC News a test like this would also ensure doctors aren't prescribing medication that isn't needed. They are often especially cognizant of patients building up a tolerance to antibiotics, which are sometimes wasted on viral infections.

"You want to make sure what you're treating is really what you think it is," Crandall said. "If you accurately know what's going on, it stops people from taking drugs they don't need to take."

Researchers are now meeting with "industrial partners" to develop the test for widespread use.

Li says he expects a two to four year timeline before it is implemented. This new method was published online in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.