Multidisciplinary Team Work on Development of Handheld COVID-19 Diagnostic Device

A multidisciplinary team of scientists led by Prof. Jian-Ping Wang (Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Robert F Hartmann Chair) of ECE, and Prof. Maxim Cheeran of the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine have designed a handheld diagnostic device that is capable of detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

MagiCoil, as the device is currently called, is based on magnetic particle spectroscopy (MPS) and is capable of assaying blood and respiratory material, and delivering results in about 10 minutes. It is designed to be a point-of-care system that can rapidly diagnose diseases and share test results with healthcare professionals and agencies through its smartphone interface. In a scenario such as the current Covid-19 situation, such a device can provide critical data not only for diagnosis, but also to follow and monitor the spread of the virus in the population, a vital step to control the spread of the disease.

Prof. Jian-Ping Wang affirms the importance of affordability and accessibility: “The estimated cost per unit is about $100 or lower. I think there is a way to produce a large enough number of MPS systems to meet a significant portion of the demand.”

Jian-Ping, whose research in the area dates back to over 10 years, is eager to join the fight against the virus. Keenly aware of the importance of affordability and widespread testing in the pandemic scenario, he says: “Once our first-generation prototypes are demonstrated successfully, we can ask for a company to produce the device in mass production. The estimated cost per unit is about $100 or lower. I think there is a way to produce a large enough number of MPS systems to meet a significant portion of the demand.”

Commenting on the increased accessibility that such a device provides, Prof. Cheeran says, “This MPS device coupled with a smartphone interface will allow testing in remote areas and on-site settings, such as in households and clinics.”

Maxim, whose expertise lies in immunology, specifically the neuroimmune response to brain infections, sees immense value in point-of-care diagnostic devices such as the MPS for their accessibility: “This MPS device coupled with a smartphone interface will allow testing in remote areas and on-site settings, such as in households and clinics. By transmitting test results collected from distant locations to centrally located data analysis units, governments can have real-time epidemiological data at their fingertips.”

Underscoring the accessibility of MagiCoil, Dr. Venkatramana D Krishna says: “The MPS handheld device can help mitigate the health burden and provide early diagnosis to effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as save lives.”

Echoing Maxim’s opinion, Dr. Venkatramana D Krishna, a researcher on the team from the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, says: “The MPS handheld device can help mitigate the health burden and provide early diagnosis to effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as save lives.”

THE TECHNOLOGY DRIVING MAGICOIL

Jian-Ping’s Nano Magnetism and Quantum Spintronics lab has been working on magnetic particle spectroscopy (MPS), the technology driving the handheld device, over the last 10 years. The lab has previously successfully demonstrated the feasibility of using an MPS system for rapid, and sensitive detection of the H1N1 virus.

MPS is a novel non-invasive measurement method that is based on the collection of magnetic responses from superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (magnetic nanoparticles or MNPS, in short). This allows for easier analysis as biological samples can be assayed with minimal processing i.e. the samples do not have to be purified or washed. The technology has two critical implications. Firstly, it supports sample handling and testing by non-technicians with minimal training requirements. A second critical advantage of this magnetic assay platform is that the biological samples show virtually no magnetic background noise, so high sensitivity measurements can be performed on minimally processed samples.

Emphasizing the unique advantages of the MagiCoil, Jian-Ping says, “This homogenous, volumetric-based, one-step, wash-free sensing scheme allows for the press of one button to get the result within a few minutes.”

HOW DOES MAGICOIL DIAGNOSE THE SARS-CoV-2 VIRUS

In the COVID-19 scenario, antibodies specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus are applied to the surface of the nanoparticles that are enclosed in a tube. When a respiratory sample is introduced to these MNPs, the latter bind to the proteins in the sample through antibody-antigen interaction. The process triggers the detection of specific biomarkers unique to the disease, such as the S protein (the spike structure seen in illustrations of the virus structure that attach to cells in the human body), and the N protein (seen as bound to the viral genome, it plays a critical role in how cells in your body respond to the virus). When an AC-induced magnetic field is applied (by the MPS drive system through excitation coils) to the MNPs, their response is monitored by a pair of pick-up coils. As more and more of the treated nanoparticles bind with the proteins, the magnetic responses from the MNPs weaken, thereby returning a positive result for the specific disease biomarker. The device is currently undergoing further tests to fine tune aspects critical to accurate diagnosis, and we will keep you posted.

But the story of MagiCoil will not end with swift and widespread diagnosis of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Eventually, MagiCoil’s capability can be extended to diagnose other diseases. As Jian-Ping says, “Our technology could provide another platform for the rapidly expanding telemedicine and remote diagnosis settings”.

Highlighting the adaptability of the technology, team scientist Dr. Kai Wu says: “MPS is a versatile platform that allows for extending this technology to other disease monitoring, food safety monitoring, and water quality monitoring simply by adjusting the reagents on nanoparticles for different target analytes.”

Dr. Kai Wu, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who has worked with Prof. Jian-Ping Wang since the early days of development of the device, reiterates the potential: “MPS is a versatile platform that allows for extending this technology to other disease monitoring, food safety monitoring, and water quality monitoring simply by adjusting the reagents on nanoparticles for different target analytes.”

The bioassay platform is a truly multidisciplinary effort: besides the lead scientists, the work is supported by undergraduate and graduate student researchers from the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Computer Science and Engineering, Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and Mechanical Engineering. The development of the device also receives critical support from the University’s Medical School and the Institute for Engineering in Medicine.

Check this space or the project site for the latest news and updates on the testing platform.