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Smartphone tool could help diagnose infectious illnesses, such as coronavirus

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Engineers in the US have created a tiny portable lab designed to diagnose infectious diseases such as coronavirus or other conditions such as anxiety and depression.

The mobile health tool, developed by a team at the University of Cincinnati (UC), is the size of a credit card and plugs into a smartphone. The device then automatically connects the user to a doctor’s office through a custom app.

As well as the deadly coronavirus and certain mental health conditions, the UC team said the portable lab can also diagnose other infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV or Lyme disease, according to the UC engineers.

The team said the phone provides the power and test protocol to the lab chip. A patient simply puts a single-use plastic lab chip into his or her mouth, then plugs that into a slot in the box to test the saliva. The device automatically transmits the test data to the patient’s doctor for almost instant results.

UC professor Chong Ahn and his research team initially used the smartphone device to test for malaria, but said the tool could also be used for smart point of care – testing for countless chronic or infectious diseases or to measure hormones related to stress.

University of Cincinnati professor Chong Ahn developed a portable lab that plugs into your smartphone to diagnose diseases like malaria or coronavirus. The results are transmitted to your doctor over a custom app UC developed.

Image credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

“Everybody has a phone – more than three billion people,” Ahn said. “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.”

Ahn and his research team created a novel lab chip that uses natural capillary action, the tendency for a liquid to adhere to a surface, to draw a sample down two channels called a “microchannel capillary flow assay”.

During this process, one channel mixes the sample with freeze-dried detection antibodies, while the other contains a freeze-dried luminescent material to read the results when the split samples combine again on three sensors.

UC engineering professor Chong Ahn, left, and graduate student Sthitodhi Ghosh created a portable lab that plugs into your smartphone to provide point-of-care testing. The results are transmitted to your doctor via a custom app

UC engineering professor Chong Ahn, left, and graduate student Sthitodhi Ghosh created a portable lab that plugs into your smartphone to provide point-of-care testing. The results are transmitted to your doctor via a custom app

Image credit: Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Ahn said the device is accurate, simple to use and inexpensive. “The performance is comparable to laboratory tests. The cost is cheaper. And it’s user-friendly,” he added. “We wanted to make it simple so anyone could use it without training or support.”

UC doctoral student Sthitodhi Ghosh, the study’s lead author, said the biggest advancement in the device is in the novel design of its tiny channels that naturally draw the sample through the senor arrays using the capillary flow.

“The entire test takes place on the chip automatically. You don’t have to do anything,” Ghosh said. “This is the future of personal healthcare.”

While the device has applications for diagnosing or monitoring viruses and other disease, Ahn said he sees potential for the tool in the field of mental health, an area in which doctors already utilise smartphones to help track the wellness of patients.

The study was published in the Nature journal Microsystems & Nanoengineering.

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