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This Materials Innovation Could Enable Cheap Tests for Pathogens

A U.S. research team says it has integrated cellulose paper and flexible polyester films to create new diagnostic tools.

Nancy Crotti

U.S. researchers claim they've found a way to quickly and inexpensively diagnose HIV, E-coli, Staphylococcus aureus and other microbes anywhere. The solution involves using a biosensing platform made of paper and flexible substrates to analyze a drop of blood from a finger prick.

The researchers--from Florida Atlantic University, Harvard Medical School's Brigham and Women's Hospital, and the Stanford School of Medicine--say they used the new biosensors to isolate and detect multiple biotargets selectively, sensitively, and repeatedly from diverse biological mediums using antibodies, according to a Florida Atlantic University news release.

They published their findings in Nature Scientific Reports in an article titled, "Paper and Flexible Substrates as Materials for Biosensing Platforms to Detect Multiple Biotargets."

"There is a dire need for robust, portable, disposable and inexpensive biosensing platforms for clinical care, especially in developing countries with limited resources," said Waseem Asghar, PhD, assistant professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering and Computer Science at FAU and co-first author on the study.

The researchers developed separate materials to sense bio-agents and are using lensless shadow imaging technology so that no smartphone signal amplification is necessary to convey the test results to physicians, according to a report in Wired magazine.

In the Nature Scientific Reports article, the researchers address the limitations of current paper and flexible material-based platforms and explain how they have integrated cellulose paper and flexible polyester films as new diagnostic tools to detect bioagents in whole blood, serum and peritoneal fluid. Using three different paper and flexible material-based platforms embedded with electrical and optical sensors, they demonstrated how these new materials may be widely applied to a variety of settings, including medical diagnostic and biology laboratories.

Asghar pointed out that because their materials are easy to make and use, and can easily and safely be disposed of by burning, they may lead to developing affordable tools for drug development, food safety, environmental monitoring, veterinary medicine and diagnosing infectious diseases in developing countries. Existing paper and flexible material-based platforms use colorimetric, fluorometric and electrochemical approaches that require complex labeling steps to amplify their signal, are very costly to fabricate, and require expensive equipment and infrastructure, the release said.

Corresponding author Utkan Demirci, Ph.D., of Stanford Demirci said the new platforms could be adapted and tailored to detect other pathogens and biotargets with well-known biomarkers. He also predicted the future of diagnostics and health monitoring will have potentially cell phone based or portable readers sipping saliva or blood and continuously monitoring human health.

Last October, Boston University synthetic biologist James Collins announced that he had developed a diagnostic process for the ebola virus by printing ingredients for simple DNA experiments on a strip of paper. Ebola's genetic code consists of a specific strand of RNA that, when added to paper test strips, enabled production of a protein that stained the paper a dark purple in about an hour's time.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at BIOMEDevice Boston, May 6-7, 2015.

Nancy Crotti is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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