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Researchers make cheap, portable nanosensor for disease detection

Containing an emerging epidemic requires tests that can track its spread. But many leading technologies are bulky, expensive and slow to deploy.

A new paper in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics offers a promising alternative.

Researchers at ASU and University of Washington in Seattle have developed a cheap, portable, rapid test for viruses like Ebola and SARS-CoV-2.

When infected fluid is added to a test tube, tiny gold nanoparticles become coated in sticky disease proteins, creating clumps. The clumps then sink, causing a color change visible to the naked eye or a simple sensor.

Together, the system is known as nanobody-functionalized nanoparticles for rapid, electronic detection, or Nano2RED.

Co-author Chao Wang of ASU says the electronic data can go directly to epidemiologists and avoid costly delays.

"The electronic signal that we collect can be directly processed with a circuit and then can be digitized, stored and sent to a computer or the cloud. So this information can be directly transmitted from basically the tube to the cloud," said Wang, a researcher at ASU's Biodesign Institute and School of Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering.

The test could work well in clinics, homes or areas that are strapped for resources. 

Many current gold-standard technologies are bulky, expensive and slow to deploy. They require multiple steps of complex sample preparation or amplification.

In contrast, the new test requires only a centrifuge and a simple sensor, and can work without either in a pinch. 

Wang said epidemics are only one potential use of the system.

"This detection is not limited to infectious disease, but it can also be used for some other biomarker, including protein biomarkers for cancers, for neurodegenerative diseases or for some other things," he said.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.