Hit CTRL+P for a Personal Diagnosis

Within a decade, groundbreaking diagnostic technology could make disease detection as easy as hitting "print."

 |  Transcript [PDF]

We’ve all heard that early disease detection is important for our health. However, the time and expense of running these important tests in a hospital setting can be a huge barrier. This is especially true in remote areas and in countries that lack the necessary equipment and expertise. What if you could run a reliable test at home and get your results back in minutes?

We are already familiar with these many over-the-counter tests like these, such as pregnancy tests and glucose monitors. John Brennan, Director of the Biointerfaces Institute and professor at McMaster University, explains that this concept can be expanded widely using biomolecules, such as proteins and DNA, onto paper-based strips. These strips can be made using normal inkjet printers with special cartridges of bio-inks.

This idea uses technology and materials that are widely available, making it a reliable and cost effective strategy for healthcare. His group is also applying this technology to detect contaminants in water and food, such as E. coli and C. difficile. By simply dipping the end of the paper strip in water and allowing the water to flow through the strip, the bio-ink produces a colour change that can be read in minutes.

“The beauty of our system though is that it is not just yes/no,” explains Brennan. “We can use an iPhone camera to photograph the test strip and we have an app on the phone that will integrate the colour, compare it to a calibration standard in the phone, and tell us this colour means this amount of pesticide, or this amount of E. coli.”

While several of these tests have been developed and are currently working in the laboratory, the next step is to scale up production to provide wider general access.

“I think in 5 to 10 years, the vision would be that you can go to your drug store, or the doctor would have within his office, a whole panel of test strips that would allow him to very quickly diagnose your ailment without having to wait 3 weeks and spend $10,000 or $20,000 in order to get an answer back,” says Brennan. “I think that’s really going to be transformative in terms of how healthcare is done, in terms of knowing if your water is safe, and other applications we haven’t even dreamed of yet.”

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Prof. John Brennan is a Canada Research Chair in Bioanalytical Chemistry, and he is a professor in the Department of Chemistry, at McMaster University. Research in the Brennan Group aims to transform our understanding of how synthetic and biological materials interact. These biosurface properties are important in materials designed for applications ranging from diagnostic devices for medical and environmental monitoring to implantable ocular and blood-contacting devices. For example, ‘bioactive’ surfaces can control cell adhesion, growth and differentiation; they can act as the active component of biosensors; and can extract specific compounds from complex samples. ‘Stealth’ surfaces include materials that resist rejection, are non-fouling, show low non-specific binding of biological agents, or are resistant to biofilm formation.