The blood test app

Testing your blood for signs of a disease? There’s an app for that.

University of Rhode Island engineering faculty and students are developing a hand-held biosensor that rapidly tests a blood droplet using a smartphone, a reader box and a credit card-sized plastic cartridge.

Engineering Professor Mohammad Faghri
Engineering Professor Mohammad Faghri holds his lab-on-chip invention, a portable blood-testing device.

Engineering Professors Mohammad Faghri and Constantine Anagnostopoulos say their device eliminates the need to travel to a laboratory for blood work. That will save time, reduce costs and ultimately improve health. Plus, patients without access to health care institutions – like those in developing nations or even in outer space – could run their own blood tests. For everyone, the mere 30 minutes or so between the test and the results means that treatment for discovered diseases can start quickly, which often leads to faster recovery.

“The smartphone app turns the system on, monitors the test and sends the results securely back to your phone or to your doctors,” says Faghri, the lead researcher on the project. “It will do everything involving the analysis and you could constantly maintain your health.”

The system works by filtering the blood on a chip and then directing it to a detection site where it reacts with a localized reagent. Other reagents, preloaded onto the chip, are pumped through the reaction site to complete the procedure. An innovative fluorescence sensor in the reader box and software in the smartphone read and analyze the signal for the presence of biomarkers of disease in the original blood droplet.

The first cartridges developed detect C-reactive proteins in the blood, a preferred method for helping doctors assess the risk of cardiovascular and peripheral vascular diseases. Additional cartridges can be engineered to detect biomarkers of other diseases, including the beta amyloid protein that can be used as a predictor of Alzheimer’s disease. The device can also be developed to detect virulent pathogens, like HIV, hepatitis B and H1N1 (swine) flu.

The technology improves on a system announced by the University team in 2011 that generated enthusiasm among many sectors of the health care industry. The latest version scales down the initial shoebox-sized reader box to something easily held in the palm of the hand.

“The new device is faster, more accurate, easier to use and much less expensive than the previous version and it could revolutionize our health care system,” Faghri says.

The fluorescence sensor in the new reader box, for example, costs less than $10 compared to the $3,200 sensor in the original system. Anagnostopoulos slimmed down the sensor by removing the need for a lens between the sensor and the reaction chamber.

Several patents are being prepared and a company, Labonachip, was formed to commercialize the innovation.

The third generation of the device, currently in development, will put the entire lab on paper, eliminating the need for active pumping of blood and reagents through the cartridge. Such a step would create the potential to include a blood-testing slot on every smartphone. Want to test for a certain disease? Just slide in the appropriate cartridge, prick your finger and wait a few minutes.

“This is the future,” Anagnostopoulos says.