Ferrobot Swarms for rapid viral testing

At the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers have developed a handheld laboratory kit that can perform automated combination tests for viral diseases, including COVID-19. The technology consists of a microfluidic platform based on dynamic magnetic discs, which the researchers have named “ferrobots”, to shuttle samples through the device and mix them with reagents before they reach the area where the loop-mediated isotherm measurement is performed.

The assay amplifies the main characteristics of nucleic acids and allows rapid identification of viral pathogens. The device is cleverly designed with rapid mass testing in mind and is designed to first analyze pooled samples from multiple individuals and then automatically test individual samples if the pooled sample gives a positive result. The result is a technique that can quickly assess large groups of people, with less reagents, cost and time than traditional diagnostic methods.

The pandemic has fallen out of the headlines, but thankfully scientists are still working hard behind the scenes to help us better deal with the next one, or to better prepare for a scenario where SARS-CoV-2 has one last trick up its sleeve – a nightmare variant that sends us back to the bad old days of 2020. In any case, there’s nothing wrong with developing better virus detection technology.

This latest device is designed for mass testing in the field, in places like universities. “Our handheld laboratory technology could help overcome some of the barriers to lack and access to testing, especially early in a pandemic, when it is most important to control the spread of disease,” said Sam Emaminejad, a researcher involved in the study. “And beyond its potential to address problems of short supply and high demand, it could be broadly adapted to test for many types of diseases in the field and with laboratory quality.”

Close-up drawing of UCLA-developed all-in-one platform for fully automated disease testing (Ella Maru Studio)

The system includes a circuit that can move a series of magnetic discs, called ferrobots, along microfluidic channels. Ferrobots shuttle sample droplets around the device and can separate and mix samples, add reagents, and facilitate loop-mediated isothermal amplification tests for viral nucleic acid detection. These steps are automatic and do not require operator input.

The goal of the technique is initially to test multiple samples that have been mixed together and save reagents. If none of these pooled samples are positive for the virus, the device can proceed to test the next pooled batch. However, if the pooled batch tests positive, the system will test each sample individually to identify the positive sample(s). This method saves a lot of time and reagents, as most pooled samples will not test positive, and the need to test each sample individually is avoided.

“This platform’s compact design and automated sample handling enable easy implementations of pooled testing where you can test dozens of patient samples at the same time, all with the same material needed to test just one patient,” said co-investigator Dino Di Carlo who participated in the study. “For example, you could test students in an entire university dormitory with just a few dozen test kits.”

Study in The nature: Ferrobotic swarms enable accessible and adaptable automated virus testing

About: University of California Los Angeles

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