Handheld lab that can make disease testing over ten times cheaper

Researchers have developed a handheld, automated device which can test for diseases in under an hour, costing between 10 to 300 times less than traditional tests.

In a pilot of more than 100 people, the test produced exactly the same results as PCR testing when looking for COVID-19.

“Our handheld lab technology could help overcome some of the barriers of scarcity and access to tests, especially early in a pandemic, when it is most crucial to control disease spread,” says test developer Dr Sam Emaminejad, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California – Los Angeles, US.

“And beyond its potential to address issues of short supplies and high demand, it could be broadly adapted to test for many types of diseases in field and with lab-grade quality.”

The test resembles a circuit board, sporting millimetre-sized magnetic discs called “ferrobots”.

When samples are added to the test (in COVID’s case, these come from nasal swabs) these discs move them using minute amounts of magnetised fluid in the circuit board, guiding them through various parts of the test.

Two schematics of lab test: ferrobots, tiny metal discs, on circuit board below, and plastic board with pathways and wells above with thiny brown droplets being guided through
A circuit board drives the miniature magnetic disks “ferrobots” to transport, process and test samples within a microfluidic chip. Credit: Interconnected & Integrated Bioelectronics Lab/UCLA

The test itself is a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT), which can be used to identify any virus.

Up to 16 samples could be tested at once using “pooled tests.” All samples would be tested in one batch for the virus, then smaller group and individual tests would follow if there was a positive result from the batch.

Red droplets containing covid-19 virus on plastic above metal disc
Close-up schematic of the UCLA-developed all-in-one platform for fully automated disease testing. Credit: Ella Maru Studio

“This platform’s compact design and automated handling of samples enable easy implementations of pooled testing where you can test dozens of patient samples at the same time, and all with the same materials it currently takes to test just one patient,” says Professor Dino Di Carlo, an engineer also at the University of California – Los Angeles.

“For example, you could test students in an entire college residence hall with just a few dozen test kits.”

The test can also check for multiple diseases at the same time.

The researchers have submitted a patent application for their device, and have published a description of their test in Nature.

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