Nanotech diagnostics to test for diseases and track infection

Scientists, engineers and clinicians are to develop early-warning sensor systems that can test and track serious infectious diseases using mobile phones and the internet.

This new EPSRC-funded Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration (IRC), led by UCL (University College London), will develop mobile health technologies that allow doctors to diagnose and track diseases much earlier than previously possible.

According to a statement, the IRC will pioneer low cost, easy to use diagnostic tests based on advances in nanotechnology for use in GP surgeries, pharmacies, elderly care homes, developing countries and at home.

The mobile tests aim to identify diseases with high sensitivity and specificity and give results within minutes from just a pin-prick of blood or a swab. Rapidly transmitting results into secure healthcare systems will alert doctors to potentially serious outbreaks with geographically linked information.

The UCL team are already developing a smart-phone-connected prototype test for HIV with industry partners OJ-Bio.

The IRC will also track reported symptoms of infection by searching internet sources including media reports, search engine queries and social networking sites to identify outbreaks before people attend clinics or from parts of the world that lack the resources for traditional public health surveillance.

Worldwide, there are an estimated 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions, 2.7 billion people on-line and one billion social network users, representing a significant opportunity to widen access to tests and track emerging disease outbreaks.

Dr Rachel McKendry, from the London Centre for Nanotechnology UCL, who will lead the new centre, said, ‘A new generation of diagnostic test and tracking systems could save millions of people from deadly diseases such as new strains of influenza, HIV and MRSA.’

‘The revolution in mobile communication, nanotechnology, genomics, and ‘big data’ analysis offers tremendous opportunities to actively manage outbreaks and ultimately prevent infectious diseases. Widening access to tests in community settings will empower patients to gain faster access to treatment, reduce the inappropriate use of antibiotics and protect the wider public.’

The new centre will bring multidisciplinary expertise in biomarker discovery that require minimal sample processing steps, nano-enabled sensors, temperature-stable biomimetic capture coatings, nanoparticles, microelectronics, microfluidics, wireless networks, data mining, data security and health economics.

Early diagnosis plays a vital role in the treatment, care and prevention of infectious diseases. However, worldwide, many infections remain undiagnosed and untreated or are diagnosed at the late stage due to poor diagnostic tools. The result is on-going transmission of serious infections and delays in the identification of emerging threats.

To meet the needs of end users, the team will work with NHS clinicians from UCL Partners and Newcastle NHS Trusts, NIHR Biomedical Research Centres, Public Health England, patient groups and the public.

The centre also benefits from links to more than 100 countries in Africa, Asia and South America via the LSHTM International Diagnostics Centre led by Professor Rosanna Peeling.

Academic partners include Imperial College, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Newcastle University and industry support will come from OJ-Bio, Microsoft, Cambridge Life Sciences, Mologic, O2 Health, Zurich Instruments, XFAB and Cepheid.