COVID–19 spread rapidly around the world, reaping havoc on our healthcare systems and economies. But it will not be the last emerging infectious disease with pandemic potential – and we need to be ready to deal with future threats as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Using diagnostics to identify infected individuals has a central role to play in the response to a new outbreak – helping to inform patient management and control the spread of the disease. Currently, such testing is usually carried out by skilled personnel using specialist laboratory equipment. But advances in consumer electronics, particularly mobile phones, have led to rapid and cheaper approaches for developing point-of-care diagnostics.
Expanded global access to mobile phones, combined with their powerful computing ability and built-in sensors, offers a promising opportunity to develop new digital diagnostics that may help in the large–scale and efficient management of infectious diseases.
In a new study, published in Science Advances, researchers develop a nanoparticle–enabled smartphone (NES) system that allows simple and sensitive detection of viruses and can be used on a variety of smartphone models.1
The new platform takes advantage of the catalytic properties of platinum nanoparticles (PtNPs) to detect viruses on-chip using a convolutional neural network (CNN)-enabled smartphone without the need for any external optical attachment for signal detection.
The virus is captured on the surface of a microchip using a specific antibody against the target virus and labelled with PtNPs. Adding hydrogen peroxide solution induces the formation of gas bubbles, which can be controlled to make distinct visual patterns that are easily recognised using a smartphone camera.
The researchers evaluated their CNN–NES system by testing for the presence of hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus and Zika virus in blood samples. They found that the sensitivity of the system at detecting the virus with a threshold of 250 copies/ml was 98.97% and specificity of 91.89%.
The team then developed a custom–built microfluidic cartridge preloaded with all the necessary reagents and materials to further simplify the testing process. Both trained and untrained users could correctly classify samples using this system.
Previous mobile health technologies for virus detection have lacked broad technical applicability, including adaptability to different smartphone models, because of their dependency on smartphone–specific hardware optical attachments.
To overcome this challenge, the researchers developed a smartphone attachment-free optical sensor for virus detection that has great potential for inexpensive point-of-care diagnostics. The platform can also be operated by untrained users due to a microfluidic cartridge that enables simple sample handling.
The system offers a powerful new way to detect a wide range of infections that can be adapted to different smartphone models, which is a major step forward in the development of mobile health technologies for virus detection.
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Dr Alison Halliday
After completing an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry & Genetics at Sheffield University, Alison was awarded a PhD in Human Molecular Genetics at the University of Newcastle. She carried out five years as a Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UCL, investigating the genes involved in childhood obesity syndrome. Moving into science communications, she spent ten years at Cancer Research UK engaging the public about the charity’s work. She now specialises in writing about research across the life sciences, medicine and health.