Mobile point-of-care (POC) smartphone-based nucleic acid assay allows for quick turn arounds and accurate information in any healthcare setting, including resource limited and remote environments 

DNA detection might soon be accomplished with the use of a smartphone. That’s the goal of a research effort at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). If this effort succeeds, it would give medical laboratories a new tool to use in genetic testing.

Clinical laboratory equipment is becoming more effective even as it shrinks in size and cost. One such device has been developed by Ozcan Laboratory Group, headed by UCLA professor Aydogan Ozcan, PhD. It is a portable, smartphone-based mobile lab with sensitivity and reliability on par with large-scale medical laboratory-based equipment.

Ozcan Lab’s portable DNA detection system, according to a UCLA press release, “leverages the sensors and optics of cellphones” and adapts them to read and report the presence of DNA molecules. The sensor uses a new detector dye mixture and reportedly produces a signal that is 10 to 20 times brighter than previous detector dye outputs.

This new system improves upon the optical detection abilities of current point-of-care nucleic acid tests (POCTs) and, according to a study published in the American Chemical Society’s ACS Nano, the device is able to “retain the same robust standards of benchtop lab-based tests.”

Go Anywhere Technology Improves POC Testing

Nucleic acid detecting assays are crucial tools anatomic pathologists use to identify pathogens, detect residual disease markers, and identify treatable mutations of diseases. Due to the need for amplification of nucleic acids for detection with benchtop equipment, there are challenges associated with providing rapid diagnostics outside the clinical laboratory.

The device developed by Ozcan Labs (above) is a “field-portable and cost-effective mobile-phone-based nucleic acid amplification and readout platform [that] is broadly applicable to other real-time nucleic acid amplification tests by similarly modulating intercalating dye performance. It is compatible with any fluorescence-based assay that can be run in a 96-well microplate format, making it especially valuable for POC and resource-limited settings.” (Caption and photo copyright: American Chemical Society.)

Using the new mobile POC nucleic acid testing system developed by Ozcan et al, pathologists can effectively step away from the lab to perform rapid POC testing and accelerated diagnostics onsite, rather than needing to transport materials to and from a central laboratory. The mobile testing assay enables pathologists to carry a medical laboratory with them into the field, or into limited-resource or decentralized testing environments, without sacrificing quality or sensitivity. And according to the ACS Nano article, at a relatively low-cost compared to benchtop nucleic acid testing equipment.

In an article published in Future Medicine, Ozcan and Hatice Ceylan Koydemir, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in electrical engineering at UCLA, comment on the growing interest in mobile POC diagnostics, stating that smartphone-based devices and platforms have the potential “to be used for early detection and prevention of a variety of health problems.”

According to the article, smartphone-based sensing and imaging platforms have been developed to:

  • Analyze chemicals and biological specimens;
  • Perform advanced cytometry and bright-field/fluorescence microscopy;
  • Detect bacterial contamination;
  • Image nano-sized specimens;
  • Detect antimicrobial drug resistance; and
  • Analyze enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA)-based testing.

Smartphones, according to Ozcan and Koydemir, have been adapted to a range of biomedical measurement tools, “have the potential to transform traditional uses of imaging, sensing, and diagnostic systems, especially for point-of-care applications and field settings,” and can provide speedy results.

A ‘Highly Stable’ and Sensitive System

The proof-of-concept study of Ozcan Lab’s new smartphone-based detection system and new detector dye mixture was led by Janay E. Kong, PhD in bioengineering at UCLA, with the help of Ozcan and fellow professors Dino Di Carlo, PhD, professor of bioengineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA, and Omai Garner, PhD, associate professor of clinical microbiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

According to an article in Bioscience Technologies, the new smartphone DNA detection system addresses issues with detection of light emitted from intercalator dyes, which are normally “too subtle and unstable for regular cellphone camera sensors.” The new system uses loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) to amplify DNA in connection with a newly developed dye that uses hydroxynaphthol blue (HNB) as an indicator.

The inclusion of HNB into the dye, according to the original research study, “yields 20 times higher fluorescent signal change over background compared to current intercalating dyes,” making the results bright enough for smartphone camera sensors without “interfering with the nucleic acid amplification process.” The original study reports that the digital LAMP system and use of the HNB intercalating dye, in fact, provided “significantly enhanced performance compared to a benchtop reader with standard LAMP conditions.”

Ozcan labs shows no signs of slowing down their development of mobile POC diagnostic devices. The development of these smartphone-based tools may provide unique and much-needed equipment for clinical pathologists given the rising interest in mobile healthcare worldwide.

Amanda Warren

Related Information:

UCLA Researchers Make DNA Detection Portable, Affordable Using Cellphones

Mobile Phones Create New Opportunities for Microbiology Research and Clinical Applications

Highly Stable and Sensitive Nucleic Acid Amplification and Cell-Phone-Based Readout

Cellphone System Makes DNA Detection Affordable and Portable

UCLA Device Enables Diagnosis of Antimicrobial Resistance in Any Setting; Could Save Lives Lost to Antimicrobial Resistant Bacteria

UCLA Researchers Develop Lens-Free Smartphone Microscope, Pathologists May Be Able to Take the Clinical Pathology Laboratory Just About Anywhere

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