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Can you imagine going to the doctor’s with an infection and leaving immediately with a prognosis and a treatment? Today, this is not possible as time-consuming external lab tests are all too often required. But a team of researchers from McMaster’s is seeking to change that.

The team has conceived of a hand-held rapid test for bacterial infections that can produce accurate, reliable results in less than an hour and right on the spot. This comes with many advantages.

“It’s going to mean that patients can get better treatment, faster results and avoid serious complications. It can also avoid the unnecessary use of antibiotics, which is something that can buy us time in the battle against antimicrobial resistance,” said in a statement Leyla Soleymani, the paper’s co-corresponding author and an associate professor of engineering physics.

“This will give doctors the science to support what they already suspect based on their skills and experience,” added co-corresponding author Yingfu Li, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences.

Currently, the test is used in diagnosing urinary tract infections from real clinical samples but the team is working to adapt it to detect other forms of bacteria, for the rapid diagnosis of viruses — including COVID-19 — and for the detection of markers of cancer.

The new DNA-based technology uses a handheld device, about the size of a USB stick, that features a microchip that can analyze a droplet of bodily fluid such as blood, urine, or saliva using molecules that can detect the specific protein signature of an infection. The device then plugs into a smartphone which displays the results.

Democratizing diagnostics

The new invention is not only ingenious but it is also extremely compact ensuring it can be used anywhere especially where access to lab testing is limited or non-existent. Li says she invented this device for the noble cause of helping people.

“As scientists, we want to enable things,” says Li, “We are knowledgeable in different scientific and engineering principles, and when you put them together to help people, that’s a special feeling. Having the chance to impact society is the reason we all do this work.”

“I think this technology is a step toward democratizing disease diagnosis and management,” added lead author Richa Pandey, a post-doctoral research fellow in Soleymani’s lab. “This is technology that can go anywhere in the world where testing is needed.”

Their proof-of-concept research was published in the journal Nature Chemistry. 

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