How is technology helping us test for COVID-19?

  • Researchers have developed a new COVID-19 antibody test that uses a smartphone camera.
  • They say it could dramatically improve the speed and efficiency of testing for infectious diseases, including COVID-19.
  • It uses technology that can measure tiny amounts of key biomarkers in the blood.

Researchers at the University of Toronto, in collaboration with Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, Public Health Ontario and Mount Sinai Hospital, have developed a COVID-19 antibody test that uses a smartphone camera.

The test could dramatically improve the turnaround time and efficiency of infectious disease diagnostics, both for COVID-19 and beyond. The work is published in the last issue of Nano letters and involves researchers from the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Donnelly Center for Cellular and Biomolecular Research.

“The aim of the study is to make COVID-19 antibody testing more accessible. Said Johnny Zhang, a doctoral student at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Chemistry, who is one of the publication’s co-first authors.

“The end result is that patients can self-diagnose for COVID-19 with their phones, and the data can be immediately viewed digitally by healthcare professionals. “

The typical workflow for infectious disease diagnostic testing involves obtaining a sample from the patient, sending it to a lab for diagnostic testing, and distributing the result to clinical staff for decision making. The processes are often siled and have a long lead time.

A device developed at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering uses an ordinary smartphone camera to quickly detect COVID-19.

Image: Image courtesy of Matthew Osborne and Hongmin Chen

In contrast, researchers at the University of Toronto and the hospital have developed a portable, smartphone-based quantum barcode serological assay for real-time monitoring of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2. They designed quantum dot barcode microbeads and a secondary marker to test for antibodies to the COVID-19 antigen in a patient’s blood. The discovery of the antibodies leads to a change in the emission color of the microbeads.

The beads are then loaded into the device, activated with a laser, and the signal is imaged using a smartphone camera. An application is designed to process the image to identify the change in emission of the ball. Finally, data is interpreted and transmitted remotely across the world for data collection and decision making.

“The beauty of the system is that everything is integrated into a single portable unit. Zhang said.

This technology, by which quantum dot microbead detection can measure minute amounts of key biomarkers in the blood, has been in development for 10 years.

“We really wanted to improve the performance and usefulness of the technology this time around,” said doctoral student Ayden Malekjahani, the other co-first author of this study.

“Being able to detect target traces in patients is not enough. We wanted to add more functions to the device. We designed the device to simultaneously detect multiple antibodies from different types of samples, so each test run is packed with information. The results are then uploaded to an online dashboard where healthcare professionals and the public can see trends in real time. “

The researchers tested the device with 49 blood samples from patients with varying degrees of COVID-19 infection, and were able to achieve a sensitivity of 84 to 88%. While this result is not as high as traditional tests, it is still about three times higher than lateral flow tests, which are currently the most commonly available portable antibody tests.

This result also means that detection of COVID-19 antibodies can now be performed outside of centralized facilities without a great drop in accuracy.

This research was a collaboration with Public Health Ontario, Sunnybrook Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital, where clinical samples were provided to researchers to test and evaluate this new system.

“This device can be a game-changer in the way we monitor the spread of infectious diseases and a patient’s response to vaccines.” said Professor Warren Chan, director of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering and corresponding author of this research.



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Perry Perrie

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