A small microfluidic chip can be used to diagnose COVID-19 in less than an hour.

COVID-19 can be diagnosed in 55 minutes or less with the help of programmed magnetic nanobeads and a diagnostic tool that plugs into an off-the-shelf cellphone. The Rice lab of mechanical engineer Peter Lillehoj has developed a stamp-sized chip that measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid (N) protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

The nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker.

“What’s great about this device is that it doesn’t require a laboratory,” Lillehoj said. “You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use.”

Lillehoj and Jiran Li, a Rice graduate student and the study’s lead author, took advantage of existing biosensing tools and combined them with their own experience in developing simple diagnostics, like a microneedle patch introduced last year to diagnose malaria.

The new tool relies on a slightly more complex detection scheme but delivers accurate, quantitative results in a short amount of time. To test the device, the lab relied on donated serum samples from people who were healthy and others who tested positive for COVID-19.

A capillary tube is used to deliver the sample to the chip, which is then placed on a magnet that pulls the beads toward an electrochemical sensor coated with capture antibodies. The beads bind to the capture antibodies and generate a current proportional to the concentration of biomarker in the sample. The potentiostat, which measures current, reads it and sends a signal to its phone app. If there are no COVID-19 biomarkers, the beads do not bind to the sensor and get washed away inside the chip. Lillehoj said it would not be difficult for industry to manufacture the microfluidic chips or to adapt them to new COVID-19 strains if and when that becomes necessary. 

The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Rice University COVID-19 Research Fund supported the research. 

Share