Portable disease detector coming

By Emily Fasold

Infectious diseases can spread like wildfire, and identifying them can take days. But thanks to medical technology, the ability to diagnose contagious illnesses will soon be literally in the palm of our hands.

University of Tennessee, Knoxville, professors Jie Wu and Shigetoshi Eda have invented a portable, pocket-sized device that uses microchip technology to instantly detect infectious diseases in both animals and humans.

“It is critical to detect [infectious diseases] quickly because they could contaminate the environment and other animals and patients,” said Wu, who is an associate professor in the University’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

Researchers say the device will help slow the spread of epidemics because it is cost-effective and can be used by health officials anywhere at any time. Users only need to place a drop of blood onto the machine, and the microchip within it, which is designed to capture disease-specific antibodies, will confirm a diagnosis within minutes.

Although the device is not currently licensed or available to the public, it has proven successful in detecting tuberculosis in humans, as well as Johne’s Disease in dairy cows.

“With our model, you can easily diagnose diseases in under five minutes,” Eda said. “This allows doctors to give treatment immediately and saves patients the hassle of going back and forth to the hospital.”

According to Eda, the device also has the ability to spot antibodies for Lyme disease, hepatitis and influenza. In the future inventors are expecting to expand its abilities to also detect Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and HIV.

Upon release, the device, which Wu plans to name “Minute-by-Lab,” will sell for $500. The microchips that detect diseases must be replaced after each use but will only cost $1–3.

“Testing with this will only cost a few dollars, so it will save patients a lot of money,” Wu said. “And because it’s more affordable, doctors can test more animals and people.”

Jim Joyce, CEO of Aethlon Medical Inc., a medical device company in San Diego, had never heard of the device but believed it could have an immense impact on treating diseases and preventing epidemics.

“When dealing with viral and infectious diseases, the ability to identify infection just days earlier could save thousands of lives because it allows [health officials] to immediately [begin] quarantine protocols,” Joyce said.

Because the device will be available to the general public, Joyce is concerned that non-professionals could unintentionally escalate epidemics by improperly handling blood. However, he believes the benefits greatly outweigh the risks.

Eda, an associate professor in the Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries Department at the University of Tennessee, said the device will be especially helpful for catching livestock illnesses such as E. coli and hand-foot-and-mouth disease, which tend to spread rapidly and endanger human health.

“With the current method, farmers have to send samples to a diagnosis laboratory and wait several days for results,” Eda said. “And that’s really not practical.”

Eventually, the inventors hope to distribute the device in Africa and other regions where many people do not have easy access to screenings for HIV and other diseases. Wu said she has received emails and phone calls from people all over the globe interested in purchasing the device, although it is not expected to be available for sale for approximately three more years.

“I hope that doctors all over the world will be using [this] in 20 years because it’s low-cost, it’s fast and it’s easy,” Wu said.