In the 1530s, hundreds of years before microscopes and Petri dishes, an Italian physician called Girolamo Fracastoro wrote about the concept of “contagionist theory” — that infectious diseases could be transmitted through personal contact, handling objects, or even from the air.
Fast forward to 2020 and the management of infectious diseases remain one of the biggest challenges facing mankind, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
From a clinical perspective, how can we tell that a patient has an infection? The current solution is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), the gold standard lab-based assay that uses genetic material standards to positively identify the unknown pathogen present in a biological or environmental sample.
Thanks to researchers at the Imperial College London, the future of infection diagnostics has arrived — tiny PCR “laboratories” made of silicone (so small that they fit on the tip of your finger).
Named TriSilix, the value of this disposable miniature laboratory lies not just in its portability, but how easy it is to manufacture at large scales. Silicone devices are cheap and relatively simple to fabricate, which paves the way for this technology to reach resource-limited settings.
Firat Guder, one of TriSilix’s inventors said: "Rather than sending swabs to the lab or going to a clinic, the lab could come to you on a fingernail-sized chip. You would use the test much like how people with diabetes use blood sugar tests, by providing a sample and waiting for results—except this time it's for infectious diseases."
With TriSilix’s diminutive size and lab-grade accuracy, the technology can easily become an at-home diagnostic solution for both infectious diseases, such as COVID-19 and other medical conditions. Each device has an in-built DNA sensor, a heater, and a sensitive temperature gauge to maintain the precise temperatures required for the PCR. Unlike its lab-based predecessor, this PCR machine is not a power-hungry device — a single charge of a smartphone battery is enough to run around 35 tests.
"Monitoring infections at home could even help patients, with the help of their doctor, to personalize and tailor their antibiotic use to help reduce the growing problem of antibiotic resistance," explained Estefania Nunez-Bajo, first author of the study, published in Nature Communications.
The next step in the commercialization of this platform is to validate the lab-on-a-chip using clinical samples from large cohorts of patients. With TriSilix and other handheld health technologies set to enter the market in coming years, we can expect to have the power to manage our health in the palms of our hands, or in this case, the tips of our fingers.