A newly designed credit-card-sized device may one day make diagnosing, treating, and preventing infectious disease outbreaks simple and cost-effective – all while being ready for on-the-go deployment at a moment’s notice.
The portable lab was designed by engineers at the University of Cincinnati to plug into a smartphone via its USB port. The device is sensitive enough to detect active malarial infections, and researchers add that it can be “easily customized for different biomarkers” to identify other diseases like HIV, Lyme disease, or coronavirus as well as to measure hormone levels related to stress, anxiety, and depression. A user needs simply to place a drop of blood or saliva on a specially designed disposable plastic lab chip and then slide it into a slot in the device.
“Everybody has a phone – more than 3 billion people,” said study author Chong Ahn in a statement. “So how can we use that technology to test for infectious diseases such as coronavirus? It’s a rapid diagnostic tool you can use at home. Right now, it takes several hours or even days to diagnose in a lab, even when people are showing symptoms. The disease can spread.”
The smartphone is used to power the device, display readings, and store data. Information obtained through the device’s “microchannel capillary flow assay” is processed using two channels, one that mixes the sample with freeze-dried disease antibodies for detection and the other that uses a freeze-dried luminescent material to enable device sensors to read the results. Data is then interpreted using a specially designed smartphone app and can be sent directly to a healthcare provider for further analysis.
“The performance is comparable to laboratory tests. The cost is cheaper. And it’s user-friendly,” Ahn said. “We wanted to make it simple so anyone could use it without training or support.”
A large percentage of deaths related to major infectious diseases occur in impoverished communities with limited access to healthcare facilities and trained personnel, a gap that the researchers say may be bridged by devices such as theirs. An accurate, inexpensive, and simple-to-use solution could be used to diagnose conditions earlier and improve patient treatment.