This amazing piece of paper checks if you’re ill

14 Jan 2016

Scientists have developed a new domino-like device that can apparently offer an instant diagnosis of illness. All it is is a piece of finely tuned, incredibly sensitive paper.

Imagine a world where virus outbreaks could be monitored by the swipe of a piece of paper.

Just wandering around, wary of touching a handrail as Ebola is in the neighbourhood, you wipe it with your paper. Within seconds, the paper turns blue and you know it’s not safe.

Well, this shouldn’t sound as far fetched as you think, as a team of researchers in Canada have come up with a way of doing just that.

Their device looks like a domino, with a few exposed dots of highly sensitive paper. You just put a spec of sweat or blood on it and, hey presto, you know if you’re sick.

Diagnosis paper

Targets on the paper test, left, change colour to indicate infection, via Matt Terry, McMaster University

Huge leaps forward

Diagnostic inventions have come on leaps and bounds in the last couple of years but, were this to prove successful, it could have an extraordinary effect on society.

The test, developed by biochemists, engineers and chemists at McMaster University, features an all-inclusive patch of reactive material, or reagent, printed on paper that changes colour to indicate the presence of a biological marker for a specific bacterium, virus, or even cancer.

You only need a minute amount of blood, sweat or any other biological material for it to take effect.

“It’s a very simple device that anyone can use,” explained Yingfu Li, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster, an author of a new paper published here. “There’s a huge need for this type of technology.”

It costs little to manufacture and can be tailored to detect biological markers for a range of illnesses. So, you could even have one checking for one illness and another checking for something entirely different.

Easily distributed

Only a tiny sample of blood, sweat or other fluid is required, since the test works by detecting and amplifying the target DNA or RNA sequence in a sample. A single molecule of the target can be multiplied thousands of times, producing a visible result. Conceivably, a user could swab a doorknob or dip it in a toilet bowl to test for Ebola, for example.

“The new test involves printing of all required components needed to amplify a DNA or RNA target directly on paper,” said John Brennan, director of the Biointerfaces Institute.

“The user only needs to add the sample to the paper and wait a few minutes for a colour to develop.”

The test material is suspended in pullulan, a naturally-derived polymeric sugar – this allows for mass production as it lets the testing materials remain viable for months until used.

The new test, which could be commercialised quickly, the researchers say, can diagnose infections even before patients feel symptoms.

The test can also quickly differentiate between illnesses that share similar symptoms, such as headache, fever or diarrhoea, permitting a quick diagnosis and earlier treatment.

Unhealthy sign via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic