Smartphone-based testing device cuts time and cost of diagnostics

An inexpensive and sensitive smartphone-based testing device for viral and bacterial pathogens could reduce the pressure on testing laboratories during a pandemic.

smartphone-based testing device
A schematic drawing of the new device system (Image: courtesy Brian Cunningham

This is the claim of research led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign electrical and computer engineering professor Brian Cunningham and bioengineering professor Rashid Bashir, whose approximately $50 solution is described in Lab on a Chip.


Most viral test kits rely on labour- and time-intensive laboratory preparation and analysis techniques. Tests for Covid-19 can take days to detect the virus from nasal swabs.

“The challenges associated with rapid pathogen testing contribute to a lot of uncertainty regarding which individuals are quarantined and a whole host of other health and economic issues,” Cunningham said in a statement.

The study set out to detect a panel of viral and bacterial pathogens in horses, including those that cause severe respiratory illnesses like those presented in COVID-19.

“Horse pathogens can lead to devastating diseases in animal populations, of course, but one reason we work with them has to do with safety. The horse pathogens in our study are harmless to humans,” Cunningham said.

The new testing device is comprised of a small cartridge containing testing reagents and a port to insert a nasal extract or blood sample, the researchers said. The whole unit clips to a smartphone and it takes about 30 minutes to complete a test.

Inside the cartridge, the reagents break open a pathogen’s outer shell to access to its RNA. A primer molecule amplifies the genetic material into many millions of copies in about 10 or 15 minutes, the researchers said. A fluorescent dye stains the copies and glows green when illuminated by blue LED light, which is then detected by the smartphone’s camera.

“This test can be performed rapidly on passengers before getting on a flight, on people going to a theme park or before events like a conference or concert,” Cunningham said. “Cloud computing via a smartphone application could allow a negative test result to be registered with event organisers or as part of a boarding pass for a flight. Or, a person in quarantine could give themselves daily tests, register the results with a doctor, and then know when it’s safe to come out and rejoin society.”

There are a few preparatory steps currently performed outside of the smartphone-based testing device, and the team is working on a cartridge that has all the reagents needed to be a fully integrated system. Other researchers at the U. of I. are using the novel coronavirus genome to create a mobile test for COVID-19 and making an easily manufactured cartridge that Cunningham said would improve testing efforts.