Smartphone-powered tool offers point-of-care infection diagnoses

By Dave Muoio
02:57 pm

A multidisciplinary group of researchers have detailed a novel infectious disease diagnostic platform that relies on the user’s smartphone to provide point-of-care screening.

Housed within a portable 3D-printed cradle, the tool uses the smartphone and an app to interpret real-time images of a microfluidic chip embedded on credit card-like cartridge. Researchers say it's the only point-of-care platform to date that is able to simultaneously perform multiple tests for viral or other nucleic targets using just one droplet of body fluid.

“Everybody already has a smartphone, and is familiar with their own particular operating system and set of apps,” Brian T. Cunningham, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told MobiHealthNews in an email. “The devices already include security features that can help protect health-related information and the cameras are becoming quite advanced. While we could implement our system with a separate handheld instrument that communicates with smartphones by WiFi or Bluetooth, we found it easy and inexpensive to 3D-print a cradle that interfaced with a commercially available smartphone.”

Cunningham, along with other researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Washington Tacoma, recently published two studies conducted to test the diagnostic platform. One, published in Analytical Chemistry, demonstrated the platform’s capacity to detect four respiratory pathogens from a single droplet of equine test sample within 30 minutes, and with detection limits similar to those obtained by standard lab equipment. The other, published in Biomedical Microdevices, tested human whole blood samples for zika virus, dengue type 1 and type 3, and chikungunya virus with similar effectiveness — a notable feat considering how closely related the genetic material of these mosquito-borne can be.

“This makes our work one of the most compelling approaches yet to be reported toward making available a practical tool for Zika diagnostics due to its rapid performance, portable format, and ability to distinguish Zika from related infections,” the researchers wrote in the journal. “Furthermore, we expect limit-of-detection can be further improved in subsequent iterations of this technology to meet the need to detect even very low viremia at the point-of-care.”

Simple point-of-care platforms serve a key role in large-scale public health, where swift frontline diagnoses can greatly reduce the impact of outbreaks or bring care to regions without more formal lab equipment. But beyond these clear-cut use cases, Cunningham said that he can realistically foresee future iterations of the pre-printed diagnostic cartridges designed for the flu, or the other countless infections that make up a substantial portion of medical care.

“Our overall vision is development of technology that will facilitate healthcare by making medical tests cheap, fast, and easily available,” Cunningham said. “We want to eliminate the process of going to a clinic or emergency room, all the waiting, getting exposed to other people’s germs [and] make getting healthcare more convenient than it is today.”


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