Coffee cup-sized DNA-testing device runs test in 30 minutes

DNA tests are moving from the lab to the bedside and into the field.

Researchers at Cambridge University recently developed a two-hour HIV test to run on a portable device the size of a coffee machine. It’s meant to test patients in remote rural regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Paul Lem from Spartan Bioscience tells us about this trend and the company’s new technology that’s the size of a coffee cup and, according to the company, “the world’s smallest DNA-testing device.”

ResearchGate: How does the Spartan cube work and what are possible applications?

Paul Lem: The Spartan Cube is a PCR-based system. Our technology fully integrates DNA extraction, and analysis and results are shown on an easy-to-use interface of a wireless connected tablet.

Let’s say you’re checking for a genetic disease. You take a cheek swab and put it into a cartridge. You then put the cartridge in the instrument and hit go. The result pops up on the screen telling you whether you tested positive for the disease or not. It goes from sample to result in under 30 minutes.

Another example could be drug response: most drugs that are currently being approved have some sort of genetic component to them. The results from the cube could tell you that you should be taking a different dose of a drug, or that you should be taking a different drug altogether.

Spartan Cube_crop
The device is four inches cubed in size. Credit: Spartan Bioscience Inc.

ResearchGate: Who developed the software and how does that work?

Lem: We developed the software. It runs the program specified by the kit. You can think of the Spartan Cube as a Microsoft Xbox. The cube is the console, and each test kit is a game cartridge. You scan the barcode on the test kit, the tablet attached to the cube recognizes the kit, and then runs the appropriate program. The test kit contains the chemicals specific to the genes you want to identify.

This could happen when a patient sees a doctor and complains of a sore throat. The doctor picks a test for Strep throat, scans the test's barcode, then the cube runs the Strep throat program. The test kit contains PCR chemicals that identify whether Strep DNA is in the throat swab.

ResearchGate: Who will use it?

Lem: We think this is the first device that can be used by all sorts of people in all sorts of settings. Typically, PCR-based applications have been confined to the medical field, to areas like infectious diseases and pharmacogenetics.

You didn’t have a fast, easy to use and affordable device that does everything and integrates all steps needed in DNA testing. This made it difficult for other researchers to take it out of the lab and into the field. Our device fits into a coffee cup. Now researchers can take it to test water in the Amazon rain forest, or animals at the vet.

ResearchGate: What ethical and privacy issues do you see and how do you deal with them?

Lem: Institutions like the Food and Drug Administration in the United States regulate medical applications of gene testing and will continue to do so. For human use you have to go through clinical trials and specify what the product is being used for and by whom. In short, for medical applications, each test has to be approved. In other areas of research, however, you don’t face these ethical issues, like in food- or water-testing or veterinary applications.

As for privacy concerns, we don’t have them: Only the user gets access to Spartan Cube data because it is stored on the tablet, and the user owns the tablet.

Spartan Cube_test cartridge (002)
Cartridges that go into the testing device. Credit: Spartan Bioscience Inc.

ResearchGate: How much does it cost?

Lem: It is going to be affordable for everyone. I’m a medical doctor and I remember the days when you would go to the doctor’s office for a glucose test and your doctor would send the samples off and it would take a few weeks to get the results back. It would also be expensive. Now you can go into Walgreens and get a blood glucose test for 20 US dollars within minutes.

There was a similar development with 3D-printing. 3D-printers used to be so expensive that only big corporations could use them. Now, many Kickstarter campaigns later, anyone can afford a 3D-printer.

The same is going to happen in DNA testing. Today DNA-testing devices are still expensive and cost somewhere between 10,000-50,000 USD. We’re going to drive this price down significantly and make it affordable for everyone.

ResearchGate: Where is DNA testing technology headed?

Lem: We believe this is going everywhere where DNA can be collected: bacteria, viruses, plants, animals, people. There are hundreds and thousands of discoveries made on old-fashioned PCR machines in labs over the last 20 years. This will unlock more applications, everywhere.

It’s like the with personal computers. The use of computers used to be confined to research and development and industry. Then Steve Jobs came up with the Macintosh and personal computers became more affordable. Then came the first spreadsheets with, VisiCalc, a program that was released for the Apple II. People thought: “Oh cool, you can use it as a spreadsheet for a business,” but they didn’t realize that it would unleash games and music and many, many more applications. This all happened because you needed the hardware to be affordable, inexpensive and easy to use to open everything up.

Feature image: Micah Baldwin on flickr.