The first generation of the Q-POC will be built to detect malaria in blood, but the team is also working on other versions that could diagnose tuberculosis from spit. They are even considering a device that would be able to detect cancer in biopsies.
A drop of blood is taken from the finger of a patient. This is then loaded onto a cartridge and inserted into the Q-POC device.
The blood is then broken down in a process called lysis. For this to take place, the sample is channeled into a chamber containing a small motor – the kind that makes your smartphone vibrate – that has a blade attached. This miniature blender breaks down the cells into a soup (called a lysate) containing DNA and the rest of the molecular junk, such as cell membranes and proteins.
The DNA needs to be separated from all this molecular junk, so a special molecular filter is added. This gets rid of the all the rubbish, leaving only the genetic material behind. The traditional lab approach involves ‘rinsing’ the junk away from the DNA, which requires clean water and takes one to two hours. The Q-POC can do it in three minutes.
The DNA moves into a channel where it is heated and cooled. This separates the two strands of the DNA helix, allowing a special enzyme to copy the DNA. There could be lots of different strands of DNA from pathogens inside the sample; the enzyme is selected to only reproduce the DNA sequence relating to one disease, in this case malaria.
This solution is passed over a series of nanowires embedded onto a chip. The wires are so tiny that 100,000 could be squeezed onto a human hair. These wires act as biosensors. Malarial DNA binds to the wire when it passes over it, causing a change in resistance. This tells the Q-POC that malaria is present. The whole process takes 15 minutes.
Without Q-POC, a sample would need to be sent to a lab, wasting days at a time. The traditional process takes a lab technician an entire day to complete. The goal is for the Q-POC to be able to test specific symptoms. If a patient reported a fever, for example, a cartridge could confirm that the pathogens responsible for inducing fever were present. The company also hopes to charge the Q-POC with solar-powered battery packs so testing can be done even if electricity isn’t available. The system doesn’t require water, making it perfect for helping deliver treatment to developing countries.