European researchers have developed a revolutionary-design portable diagnostics kit which is likely to appear on the market very soon.

Diagnosing an illness or medical condition may pose problems when it has to be performed in unfavourable circumstances, such as at the scene of an accident or in less developed countries where resources are scarce.  To help remedy this, thirteen partner institutions from eight countries worked together for four years on the LABONFOIL project, which received €5.3 billion in research funding from the European Union, to develop a portable laboratory designed to deliver fast, low-cost diagnostics. The research partnership, whose members come from a range of disciplines, worked to develop a portable lab using three ‘smart cards’ and a skin patch to take samples, plus a reader which analyses the test data.  The test results can then be forwarded via a wireless connection to a computer, tablet or smartphone.

Cross-disciplinary technology

The partnering research institutes “combined their skills in microtechnology, molecular biology, materials and electronics,” explained Dr Jesus Miguel Ruano-López, the project coordinator, who is based at the Basque research centre IK4-IKERLAN. The system, which currently comprises three ‘smart cards’ and a skin patch linked to a portable reader, is able to detect the presence of pre-determined substances in blood, sweat from the skin’s surface, or water. Each card or patch includes a highly sophisticated electronic circuit and various chemical components, which react to defined substances in order to provide a diagnosis. The cocaine detection patch is able to identify traces of the drug in human sweat, which it samples straight through the skin. One of the three smart cards is designed to monitor colon cancer. It is inserted in the reader with a few drops of a patient's blood and the card can then identify a specific protein whose presence is known to increase when the cancer recurs. The second smart card can detect pathogens – infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses – in food. The third – water contamination detection – card analyses phytoplankton concentration in a sample of sea water, as excessive concentration of these microscopic algae can signal toxins or pollution which may be harmful to humans.

Revolutionary technique, highly useful device

This portable diagnostics lab has potential uses in a variety of circumstances. The cocaine detection patch, which collects data that can be examined in real time by the portable reader or stored for analysis up to 10 days later, could for instance be used to check on vehicle drivers.  As drug consumption has been linked to around 25% of all fatal road accidents in Europe, the USA and Australia, this looks likely to be a socially useful tool.  Meanwhile the pathogen-detecting card could be used on farms and at food processing establishments to ensure food safety and protect consumers. The water contamination card could be extremely useful in spotting and preventing a looming environmental or health crisis. To create the cards and the patch, the researchers used foils, instead of the traditional wafers, which will drastically reduce production costs. Several companies in Spain, Ireland and Denmark that are associated with the project are set to commercialise this innovative diagnostic system soon.