Researchers develop chip to simplify Covid-19 testing; deliver result on phone

Prashasti Awasthi Mumbai | Updated on February 26, 2021

Representative image   -  REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Rice University researchers designed a tool that can diagnose Covid-19 in 55 minutes or less with the help of programmed magnetic nanobeads

Rice University researchers designed a tool that can diagnose Covid-19 in 55 minutes or less with the help of programmed magnetic nanobeads and a diagnostic tool that plugs into an off-the-shelf cell phone.

Mechanical engineer Peter Lillehoj has designed a stamp-sized microfluidic chip to measure the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid (N) protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

He explained that the nanobeads cling onto SARS-CoV-2 N protein in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker.

Lillehoj and the team believe that their process simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR lab tests that are widely used to diagnose coronavirus around the world.

Lillehoj said: “What’s great about this device is that doesn’t require a laboratory. You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic, or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use.”

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For the tool development, Lillehoj, Rice graduate student, and lead author Jiran Li employed existing biosensing tools. They then combined the tools with their own experience in developing simple diagnostics, like a microneedle patch introduced last year to diagnose malaria.

The new tool relies on a slightly more complex detection scheme but delivers accurate, quantitative results in a short amount of time, stated the researchers.

The team found that 55 minutes was an optimum amount of time for the microchip to detect SARS-CoV-2 N protein at concentrations as low as 50 picograms (billionths of a gram) per milliliter in whole serum.

The microchip could detect N protein in even lower concentrations, at 10 picograms per milliliter, in only 25 minutes by diluting the serum fivefold.

This tool was able to deliver a positive diagnosis with a concentration as low as 230 picograms for whole serum after pairing with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in potentiostat, researchers noted.

“There are standard procedures to modify the beads with an antibody that targets a particular biomarker. When you combine them with a sample containing the biomarker, in this case, SARS-CoV-2 N protein, they bond together,” Lillehoj explained.

Lillehoj further added that their tool is not difficult to manufacture for industries. The tool can also be modified to adapt to new strains of the virus.

The research paper was published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Sensors.

Published on February 26, 2021

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