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University of Queensland Researchers Isolate DNA and RNA with New ‘Dipstick Technology’ That May Allow Medical Laboratory Testing in Extremely Remote Locations such as Jungles

Researchers successfully isolated both plant and human RNA and DNA in the field, demonstrating the potential for their new dipstick technology to identify deadly bacteria, pathogens, and diseases in water, food, and even humans

Australian researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) have developed an intriguing “dipstick” technology that might make it possible to use simple equipment to sequence DNA and RNA in the field. Among the potential applications that will interest clinical laboratory professionals is the ability for this technology to identify pathogens, both in humans and the environment.

Medical laboratories and anatomic pathologists are aware that gene sequencing (AKA, Nucleic Acid Sequencing) is the coming revolution in diagnostics. But the process is still costly and anchored to immovable technology that requires controlled environments and reliable resources. This promising new technology could make it simpler, cheaper, and faster to extract human DNA and RNA in settings outside a sophisticated core medical laboratory.

The UQ researchers developed technology that could affect how and where diagnostic tests for a whole range of pathogens are performed. For example, tests for bacteria such as E. coli in water supplies, pathogens in food, and diseases in humans currently are conducted in environmental and clinical laboratories. This new technology may allow such diagnostics to be done in extremely remote environments.

Isolating DNA/RNA in the Field

Jimmy Botella, PhD, Professor of Plant Biotechnology, and Michael Mason, PhD, Senior Post-doctoral researcher, both at the University of Queensland, led a team of researchers who published their findings in the journal PLOS Biology. The team developed a process they called “dipstick technology,” which allows DNA and RNA to be isolated quickly and without the use of specialized equipment.

They began by using the technology on particular plants, but soon found it could be used in many other situations.

“We found it had much broader implications as it could be used to purify DNA or RNA from human blood, viruses, fungi, and bacterial pathogens from infected plants or animals,” Botella noted in a press release.

The researchers’ objective was to investigate whether or not several different materials could be used to extract nucleic acids. “The first step in any application aiming to amplify DNA or RNA is the extraction of nucleic acids from a complex biological sample; a task traditionally requiring specialized equipment, trained technicians, and multiple liquid handling steps,” they wrote in the published study.

Holding the dipstick technology (from left) Dr. Michael Mason, Professor Jimmy Botella, and Yiping Zhou, all researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. (Caption and photo copyright: University of Queensland.)

Their aim was to find a simpler process that required far less personnel and equipment. They found that cellulose-based filter paper could be used to bind nucleic acids. The filter paper, which was the control early in their investigation, even retained the nucleic acids through a purification process that removed contaminants. “We then adapted the cellulose filter to create a dipstick that can be used to purify nucleic acids from a wide range of plant, animal, and microbe samples in less than 30 seconds without the need for specialized equipment,” the researchers reported.

The team conducted its first tests on the plant species A. thaliana, a flowering plant found in Africa and Eurasia. However, wanting their dipstick technology to be useful in the field, they expanded their experiments to include various species of wheat, rice, soybean, tomato, and other plants. Citrus plants, known to be challenging, also were successfully tested.

The researchers then tested if their new technology would be useful for applications in humans, which is more complicated. HIV and hepatitis can be diagnosed using commercial kits, but those kits are not useful in many settings because the samples often require sophisticated manipulation. The researchers’ method—using cellulose paper and a one-minute wash—succeeded in amplification of the nucleic acid.

Performing Diagnostics in Hospitals, on Farms, and Even in the Jungle!

The University of Queensland’s commercialization company, UniQuest, has filed a patent application for the new technology. They are currently seeking partners to commercialize and sell the dipstick technology worldwide.

“Our dipsticks, combined with other technologies developed by our group, mean the entire diagnostic process from sample collection to final result could be easily performed in a hospital, farm, hotel room, or even a remote area such as a tropical jungle,” Botella noted in the press release.

The team conducted much of their field research on remote plantations in Papua New Guinea. They conducted tests on trees, livestock, human diseases, and to detect pathogens in food and water. “The dipstick technology makes diagnostics accessible to everyone,” Botella told Technology Networks.

Dipstick Diagnostics Not New to Point-of-Care Testing

As Modern Healthcare Executive noted, dipstick technology for various diagnostic purposes is not new, even though this particular application is, potentially, revolutionary. There are dipstick tests for everything from pregnancy to cholera. Also referred to as point-of-care testing (POCT), research and development of this technology has steadily grown, and as the UQ study shows, will likely continue.

In a paper published in Clinical Biochemistry Reviews, authors Andrew St. John, PhD, of ARC Consulting, and Christopher Price, MD, of the University of Oxford, noted, “Healthcare is changing, partly as a result of economic pressures, and also because of the general recognition that care needs to be less fragmented and more patient-centered.”

While there are certainly advantages to quick diagnostic tests that can be conducted in the field, there are some challenges, as well. Julie L. V. Shaw, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at The University of Ottawa, argues that “there are many challenges associated with POCT, mainly related to quality assurance,” in a paper she published in the journal Practical Laboratory Testing.

Technology will continue to develop and drive innovation and change in how diagnostics are performed and thus in how clinical laboratories operate. Various initiatives driving the industry toward personalized medicine and value-based care are sure to play a role, alongside new technology and other advancements.

With all of those changes, one thing remains critically important and that is the value of human understanding and innovation.

—Jillia Schlingman

Related Information:

Nucleic Acid Purification from Plants, Animals and Microbes in Under 30 Seconds

UQ Dipstick Technology Could Revolutionize Disease Diagnosis

Dipstick Technology Enables Rapid Diagnosis Anywhere

Existing and Emerging Technologies for Point-of-Care Testing

Practical Challenges Related to Point of Care Testing

The March of Technology Through the Clinical Laboratory and Beyond