Do you remember James Bond film Casino Royale? After being poisoned, the agent uses a portable diagnostic kit to identify the toxic substance and alert his HQ in London. Such type of technology is not fiction anymore. European researchers have developed a ground-breaking diagnostic system based on smart cards and skin patches combined with a portable reader. Test results can directly be sent to a remote computer, a tablet or a smartphone through a wireless connection. This small lab can already detect cocaine consumption, monitor colon cancer, identify bacteria in food and analyse environmental contamination. Many other useful applications can be foreseen. Companies in Spain, Ireland and Denmark will soon commercialise this innovative diagnostic system.
"13 partners in 8 countries worked during 4 years on the LABONFOIL project. They combined their skills in microtechnology, molecular biology, materials and electronics to develop this novel technology for rapid and low-cost diagnosis. All this was made possible thanks to a EUR 5.3 million funding of the European Union", explains Dr Ruano-López, the project coordinator based at the Basque research centre IK4-IKERLAN.
The team focused more specifically on three smart cards and a skin patch. Each of them includes a very sophisticated electronic circuit and different chemical components that react to defined substances. The cards and the patch are analysed by a portable reader.
Detecting cocaine consumption
The cocaine detection patch can identify drugs in human sweat, which it samples straight through the skin. The patch collects data which can be examined in real time by a portable reader or stored for later analysis — over a period from 24 hours to 10 days. It could be used, for example, to control drivers as drug consumption is related to around 25 % of fatal road accidents in Europe, the USA and Australia.
Monitoring colon cancer
A smart card has been developed to monitor colon cancer. It is inserted in the reader with a few drops of a patient's blood. The card can identify a specific protein which increases in case of recurrence of the disease. The technique is not invasive and allows a close follow-up of the patient at reduced costs.
Identifying bacteria in food
Another smart card elaborated by the research team can detect pathogens – infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses – in food. It focuses on 'Campylobacter' and 'Salmonella' — the most common bacterial infections in Europe. It could be used in farms and in food processing establishments to ensure food safety and protect consumers.
Analysing water quality
The water contamination card analyses phytoplankton concentration in a sample of sea water. Excessive concentration of these microscopic algae can signal toxins or pollution which may be harmful to humans.
Results immediately available
The portable reader can connect to computers, tablets or smartphones through a wireless network. The data obtained by the small lab in a poultry farm could be immediately inspected by a vet located anywhere in the world. Such a diagnostic system could enable rapid reactions in case of health or environmental crisis, and ultimately save lives.
Soon on the market
Researchers used foils, instead of traditional wafers, to create the cards and the patch, reducing drastically production costs. After extensive validation tests — involving more than 600 samples — the devices shown to be robust and reliable; they are now ready to be used by the market. "With team spirit, dedication and a rigorous approach, we created a diagnostic system having an important social and economic potential. The four applications that we developed present a real added value and they can be adapted in different scenarios, faster and more cost-effectively than ever before", says Dr Ruano-López.
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