The University of Washington has received nearly $10 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to continue a project aimed at building a small, paper-based device that could test for infectious diseases on-demand in areas where diagnostic capabilities are limited.
The $9.6 million cooperative agreement awarded to the UW and its partners - General Electric Co. Global Research, Seattle-based Epoch Biosciences Inc., global health nonprofit Path, and Seattle Children's - will fund researchers to build a prototype of the device, which could be as small as a deck of playing cards and would work much like an over-the-counter pregnancy test.
"This test will be inexpensive, simple to use and robust enough that people could use it in their homes, in the developing world and in a doctor's office," said lead researcher Paul Yager, professor and chair of the UW bioengineering department.
A patient would take a nasal swab, then activate the disposable device. The device would look for the DNA or RNA of a specific set of pathogens in the body fluid sample. If a target pathogen is present, within an hour a pattern of dots would appear on the test paper. Patients could take a smartphone photo and transmit those results to their physician anywhere in the world for a diagnosis.
"There are a lot of cell phones now in the developing world, so you could test and receive a diagnosis in places where there aren't any medical testing facilities," Yager said.
This second phase of funding will last 18 months as researchers develop a usable prototype. The UW received an initial $4 million in 2011 to get the project off the ground, then earned the second phase this spring.
Yager and his team at the UW have hired seven new staff across multiple fields, including biochemistry, microbiology and mechanical engineering. GE Global Research and Epoch Biosciences also added to their staff under the new grant. The project is funded by the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency - the same agency that helped launch the Internet.
Researchers will first build a paper-based pathogen identification test that targets methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, bacteria that resist antibiotics and spread by contact. Next, they plan to develop tests for the influenza virus, and perhaps sexually transmitted infections and other infectious diseases.