The concept involves technology called microfluidics.
"Our vision is a field deployable device and eventually a home test that you can do from saliva that anyone could do from saliva," said Prof. Juan Santiago, an expert in microfluidics.
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Instead of sending the nasal swabs fluid to laboratories for testing, the sample can be analyzed in a chip half the size of a credit card. Inside are micro-channels smaller than a human hair.
"We would need just a few drops of this liquid to get into our chip to load it into an input port in our chip," explained Prof. Santiago. "And once you do that, we put the chip inside the device, close the lid, and the rest would be automated."
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By doing this on a portable device in the field, results could be ready in 30 minutes. The concept has been tested using samples from 32 patients confirmed with COVID-19.
It's a three-step process that first extracts DNA, then amplifies the molecules and then detects and confirms presence of the virus. The second step, amplification, currently has to be done externally. But with two months more work, it's estimated the entire process can be integrated inside the chip.
"The current chip that we have is about a finger width of size, and we want to kind of now bring all of these steps onto a device that's no larger than maybe a hand, a palm size," said fifth year Ph.D. student Ashwin Ramachandran, who has been working on the project.
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All of this was done with a budget under $5,000. Work will continue to build a durable case for field use and to add tiny electrodes inside the chip to heat small areas for short periods to process the sample. Researchers say the same system can be used to detect other organisms that cause disease.
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