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Detecting malaria in the palm of your hand

Scientists use a handheld device to test for malaria

Author Jacqueline Detwiler

howitsdone

If there is a single worst period of time that is universal to human existence, it’s the weeks between getting tested for an illness and finding out the results. And if you think those are bad, try living in the developing world, where the answers can take months to arrive, or never come at all. That’s where Jonathan O’Halloran, chief scientific officer and co-founder of a company called QuantuMDx, got the idea for the Q-POC scanner, a handheld device that is able to quickly diagnose conditions as diverse as malaria and melanoma using DNA, and even tell doctors what treatments will work best. Currently in the prototype stage, the scanner could be used to offer immediate tuberculosis or HIV testing in at-risk areas, mobilize resources for outbreaks of new influenzas, and track antibiotic resistance in countries around the world. Here’s how they’ll do it.

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1. Blood testing normally requires a lab that can perform a number of different assays. Instead, the Q-POC comes with several different kinds of cassette, each of which is pre-loaded with genetic probes for just one disease—HIV, for example, or a DNA mutation that is commonly associated with skin cancer.

2. To start the test, the technician places a biological sample (say, blood) on the correct cassette and puts the cassette in the Q-POC. Entirely inside the machine, the blood is broken into its parts, then filtered until only genetic material remains. The genetic material is then copied thousands of times. 

3. Finally, the amplified DNA flows into the Q-POC’s “biosensor,” a system of nanowires covered in disease probes that was developed at Harvard. If the probes bind with the right DNA, the biosensor immediately turns it into binary computer code, shooting the result to the Q-POC’s touchscreen in less than 15 minutes.

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