Using swarms of pinhead-sized magnets inside a handheld, all-in-one lab kit, researchers have developed a technology that could significantly increase the speed and volume of disease testing, while reducing the costs and usage of scarce supplies.
The automated tests can be easily manufactured, deployed, and performed timely at a doctor’s office, health clinic or at mass testing sites in airports and schools at the onset of any major infectious disease. The research team was motivated by the lack of equitable access to testing during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when only a handful of clinical laboratories were authorized to run tests. The technology breakthrough could help the authorities better prepare for future pandemics by decentralizing testing and maximizing the use of resources.
Using a circuit board that controls a set of movable, 1-mm-sized magnetic discs known as ferrobots to transport samples through the diagnostic workflow of a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT), the researchers’ ultra-sensitive lab kit was able to detect the presence of genetic material from a virus — in this case, SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19. The steps to separate, sort, mix, and amplify testing samples are all automated and performed at a miniaturized level inside the kit.