A virus diagnosis device that gives lab-quality results within just three minutes has been invented by engineers at the University of Bath, who describe it as the “world’s fastest COVID-19 test.” The prototype LoCKAmp device uses innovative lab-on-a-chip technology and has been proven to provide rapid and low-cost detection of SARS-CoV-2 from nasal swabs. The research team based at the University of Bath says the technology could easily be adapted to detect other pathogens such as bacteria—or even conditions like cancer.
The device works by rapidly releasing and amplifying genetic material from a nasal swab sample by carrying out a chemical reaction to produce a result, which can be viewed on a smartphone app. The device and how it works is detailed in the research paper published in Lab on a Chip.
The LoCKAmp advantage
Unlike lateral flow assay tests, commonplace during the pandemic, the LoCKAmp employs the same gold standard genetic-based testing techniques previously reserved for lab-based PCR tests, thus enabling rapid testing at laboratory-scale standards for the first time. The speed and accuracy of the LoCKAmp set it apart: Results shown within three minutes, the research team say that to their knowledge this makes LoCKAmp the fastest COVID-19 test reported to date.
Made with off-the-shelf components and factory-manufactured printed circuit boards, the prototype device could be made on a mass scale quickly and at low cost, presenting care providers and public health bodies around the world with an effective new tool in virus detection. The research team says a commercial partner with the relevant design and manufacturing expertise could quickly redesign the LoCKAmp into a small, portable device, with great potential for use in remote healthcare settings. The testing unit is projected to cost as little as £50 when it reaches mass production, while the test cartridges, currently made for £2.50, could cost less than 50 pence.
Despina Moschou, PhD, from Bath’s Centre for Bioengineering & Biomedical Technologies (CBio), who led the research, says: “This is an amazing display of the possibilities of lab-on-a-chip technology, and given the low cost and adaptability of the technology to detect a range of conditions, a potentially highly valuable and unique tool for a range of healthcare settings.”
How LoCKAmp works
LoCKAmp harnesses a process known as RT-LAMP (reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification) to multiply specific sequences of RNA, meaning it can quickly detect the particular virus it is looking for. The team says LAMP detection is preferable to PCR testing as it has higher sensitivity, is faster, and more specific.
Crucially, processing takes place at a single stable temperature of 65°C, instead of needing the three thermal cycles a PCR test requires. This means the device can be made easier at a portable size, and with lower power consumption. A further benefit of the design is that no preprocessing of the nasal swab samples is required.
Once a nasal swab sample is added to the device, the LoCKAmp pumps the liquid through tiny transparent microfluidic channels layered onto the circuit board, above copper heaters just 0.017 mm thick. The copper heaters heat the sample, releasing the RNA from the virus. This is further heated and treated with RT-LAMP chemicals to facilitate multiplication. If the specific virus RNA is present in the amplified sample, it fluoresces under light—this signal is then used to denote a positive test.
Scope to track outbreaks via wastewater
As well as proving the system’s capability in analyzing nasal swab samples, the LoCKAmp could also be used to carry out anonymous community-level monitoring and detection of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 by testing wastewater.
Using LoCKAmp to carry out ongoing, real-time analysis of wastewater could allow public health bodies to quickly detect the spread of viruses or other infectious diseases. Doing this via wastewater can give a broader, community-wide view, rather than relying on individuals to regularly test for a condition.
Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, PhD, from Bath’s Department of Chemistry, says: “With LoCKAmp technology providing both low cost and real-time genetic target identification and quantification, we're getting ever closer to real-time pathogen tracking. This opens exciting opportunities enabling the establishment of early warning systems utilizing wastewater for pathogen surveillance in communities.”
- This press release was originally published on the University of Bath website