LEBANON — What if a nurse in a poor African village had access to a medical diagnostic tool the size of a cell phone that could determine the presence and amount of virus in a sample of blood or saliva in minutes for less than $2 per sample?
Although technology already exists to make such a reading, the equipment is usually based in a laboratory, takes time to run a test, costs thousands of dollars, isn’t mobile and cannot withstand the rigors of heat, cold or sandstorms.
But a development team that includes John Mata, associate professor of pharmacology at COMP-Northwest in Lebanon, and David Roberts of Takena Technologies in Albany, has developed a prototype device that “worked the very first time it was tried,” according to Roberts.
The mobile diagnostic device — which currently fits in a small plastic case — is composed of a computer system linked to a laser and detector.
Their project recently received a $20,000 John C. Erkkila Endowment for Health and Human Performance grant. The project is titled “The Use of Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer to Detect Virus in Blood.”
Mata said that initially the project will be focused on HIV, Zika and Ebola, although assays for human papillomavirus (HPV), tuberculosis (TB), hepatitis C (HCV), anthrax, malaria and salmonella are also in the design phase.
“The unique feature of this new technology is the ability to directly measure biological targets without the need for enzymes or heat sensitive reagents,” he said. “Further, the measurements can be made on a small battery-powered fluorometer that the research team has constructed as a prototype for this novel detection method. The goal of this research is to allow testing for early viral infection and other emerging pathogens anywhere in the world for a cost of less than $2 per test.”
And the device is targeted to cost less than $1,000 each.
“We started talking about this two years ago,” Mata said.
Mata brings the medical/biological background and expertise with synthetic RNA binding polymers to the table and Roberts brings the ability to design hardware and software.
In a nutshell, Mata said every virus has its own unique identifying structure built upon DNA and RNA.
“By using RNA binding polymers modified with fluorescent dyes, and shining a laser through a fluid sample, we can determine the amount of a virus by how brightly the material glows when it finds a target,” he said.
Mata said that basically, “we put in one wavelength of light and get out another wavelength. The difference in those wavelengths is the amount of virus in the sample.
And, because viruses mutate as they come and go through outbreaks, the detection probes can be updated quickly with the latest identifying information.
Mata and Roberts say that the prototype currently tests for only one virus at a time, but like the miniaturization of computer chips, they envision some day being able to test for up to 100 viruses at the same time.
“We want this to be a one-button operation,” Roberts said. “It will be the size of a cell phone, operate on two small batteries and be impervious to heat or cold.”
The men said the device could be used to detect issues with food or drinking water.
“This could be sold at Cabela’s and someone who likes to hike could use one to determine whether water in a stream is contaminated,” Roberts said.
In addition to Mata and Roberts, other participants are researchers Thomas Squier PhD, Vishwanath Venketaraman PhD, Michelle Steinhauer PhD, and Yijia Xiong, PhD from the Department of Basic Medical Sciences.
Joining Roberts from Takena Technologies is Greg Peek with James Summerton from GeneTools, LLC of Philomath, the inventor and manufacturer of the polymers.
Jocelynn Powell, a first-year student at COMP-Northwest, is helping with lab research and other medical and undergraduate students and will begin assisting in the testing this summer.
Roberts said all of the technology used in the prototype is currently available off the shelf in a much smaller size and is reasonably priced. He said the prototype cost about $1,500 in actual parts.
The men presented the idea at a recent meeting to military representatives and said they were impressed with its potential.
Information detected by the device can be uploaded like a text message or cellular phone call anywhere in the world, the men said, such as the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.