You can finally put those Lego skills from your childhood to work designing medical tests, thanks to a new project from MIT’s Little Devices Lab. Researchers there have developed a set of modular blocks that you can assemble to run various assays with liquid samples. They can measure blood glucose levels or detect viral infection, and that’s just the start. Simply snap them into a frame, add your sample, and wait for the results.
The MIT team designed “Ampli blocks” to address the need for inexpensive modular testing systems. While it might be possible for a lab to test for a particular viral infection, not all facilities have the necessary equipment to do it. Developing portable diagnostic devices can make testing more accessible, but there’s little interest in mass-producing specialized hardware that may only be used to test small numbers of people. Ampli blocks have the potential to support a large number of customizable tests without added manufacturing expense.
So far, the team has designed about 40 different color-coded modular blocks. Each one consists of a reusable base of metal or plastic about half an inch across along with a glass cover. A sheet of paper or fiberglass is sandwiched under the glass, and this is where all the chemistry happens. Some of the blocks have spots where doctors can add their samples, which then diffuse through the paper tabs.
The idea is that you’ll link multiple blocks together, allowing your sample to pass through numerous paper testing environments. The blocks may have multiple channels with different reagents that mix with the sample, sending the fluid off to more blocks. Many of the blocks include antibodies attached to nanoparticles that detect specific molecules. When a molecule is present in a sample, most blocks respond with a colored reaction. Doctors can even run the same sample over a block again to enhance the colorful response.
As a proof of concept, researchers combined blocks to check for three different molecules in a sample, which serves as a test for isonicotinic acid. That’s an indicator of whether or not tuberculosis patients are taking their medication. The team is currently developing blocks that can test for human papilloma virus, malaria, Lyme disease, and more. MIT wants to get Ampli blocks into the hands of medical professionals across the world, but they’ve already been sent to labs in Chile and Nicaragua. The next step is to set up a spin-off company that can manufacture the blocks en masse.
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