Hypochondriacs rejoice! Researchers at the University of Twente in the Netherlands have created a prototype device that is capable of detecting viruses and bacterium within the body in a matter of minutes rather than the week or two that is commonplace nowadays. The technique was first used to detect the Herpes Simplex Virus and scientists are now in the process of making it capable of detecting all known infectious diseases. There goes the character-building suspense of having to wait for test results.
This device could be tremendously useful when an epidemic breaks out. There would be no need for guesswork in outbreaks like the recent swine flu. Once the disease itself is isolated and added to the database, patients could be told in mere minutes whether they are affected and quarantined so as not to spread the disease. If these devices disseminated into home use, the results could be even more effective. Parents would know immediately what their children are suffering from and could respond accordingly. The entire family could be treated before symptoms are even seen.
Conversely, this system could also help to save money in the already bloated healthcare system. Patients could test themselves at home for a disease and, if it just turns out to be the common cold, they would not need to go in and see their primary care physician. There would be no need for extraneous visits to the doctor to run tests that will simply come back negative. This device could be the biggest breakthrough since thermometers went from rectal to oral.
The device works on the fairly simple concept of light refraction. If there is something (on the molecular scale) in the way of a beam of light, that beam will be scattered ever so slightly. It’s a bit like a fingerprint, where no two molecules scatter light in the same manner. A detector determines exactly how the light was scattered and checks the patterns against a database of known patterns that can positively identify the mystery molecule. For this to work effectively, the molecule, bacterium or virus needs to be held directly in the path of the light.
To do that, a special microchip of sorts was created with channels for the light to pass through. Molecular receptors were placed on the chip in such a way that when it binds to a target, it is held in the beam. On the chip are many types of molecular receptors, with at least one capable of attaching to each species in the database. As a sample of the patient’s saliva or blood is spread on the chip, the receptors bind the malady in place.
This device is still in its prototype stage, so it will be a few years before “say ahhh” disappears from the doctor’s office altogether. But the sheer excitement generated by the prospect of this absolutely remarkable machine should be enough to warrant a trip to the clinic or at least a new pair of pants. The journey from prototype to product is perilous, arduous and time consuming, but hopefully we’ll be seeing this device hitting hospitals in the near future.