Image: Portable diagnostic lab kit can perform fully automated multiplexed and merged testing (Courtesy of UCLA)
Using swarms of pinhead-sized magnets inside an all-in-one portable lab kit, researchers have developed technology that can significantly increase the speed and throughput of disease testing while reducing costs and the use of scarce resources. Automated tests can be produced, deployed and performed in a timely manner at the onset of any major infectious disease, in a doctor’s office, health clinic, or mass testing areas at airports and schools. Technological progress can help authorities better prepare for future outbreaks by decentralizing testing and maximizing resource use.
The research team led by UCLA (Los Angeles, CA, USA) was motivated by the lack of fair access to testing during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when only a few clinical laboratories were licensed to perform the tests. The researchers also conducted a clinical trial using test samples from people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. More than 100 test results using the lab kit were compared to the same samples tested for COVID-19 using polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based molecular diagnostics, performed as part of UCLA Health’s routine clinical care.
Using a circuit board that controls a series of millimeter-sized moving magnetic disks known as “ferrobots” to transport samples through the diagnostic workflow of a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT), the researchers’ ultra-sensitive lab kit was able to detect the presence. genetic material from a virus, in this case SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. The steps of separating, sorting, mixing and growing test samples are all automated and performed on a miniature level within the kit.
By designing the kit for combined testing, the system requires much less chemical reagents than is required to test individual samples. Up to 16 samples were assembled and tested simultaneously in the team’s studio. If the combined test shows a positive result, subsequent tests are automatically performed within the same platform until true positive samples are identified. This whole process took between 30 and 60 minutes depending on whether there were positive samples or not. Thanks to the test miniaturization and combined testing capabilities of the technology, the costs of chemical reagents can be reduced by 10 to 300 times.
The platform offers precise and robust automation as well as being able to test multiple diseases at the same time. For example, in a collaborative test with 16 samples, the ferrobots automated more than 300 laboratory processes, including mixing and sorting, or more than 3,000 individual movements or performances. In their reliability studies, the researchers revealed that ferrobots can perform more than 8 million actions without errors.
“Our portable laboratory technology can help overcome some of the barriers to testing shortages and access, especially early in an epidemic, when controlling the spread of disease is most important,” said Sam Emaminejad, associate professor of engineering. the person who co-authored the study. “Beyond its potential to address issues of short supply and high demand, it can be broadly adapted to detect many types of disease in the field and at laboratory quality.”
Professor Dino Di Carlo said: “The compact design and automated sample processing of this platform allow for easy testing in the pool where you can test dozens of patient samples simultaneously, all with the same materials currently required to test a single patient.” said. Bioengineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. “For example, with just a few dozen test kits you can test students in an entire college dorm.”
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