Let it glow: How smartphones and glowing dots could revolutionize medical tests

These glowing dots are cells that can be counted and provide valuable medical information. Photo: Algar Research Group.

Russ Algar researches luminescent materials for a variety of uses—including point-of-care diagnostics. The UBC chemist is combining materials that emit light when stimulated and smartphone technology to develop inexpensive, uber-portable medical tests.

What are point-of-care diagnostics?

Currently, when a doctor says ‘Let’s test for something,’ you go to a lab, they take your blood, run the tests, send the results to your doctor, your doctor phones you. The model is okay, but it has a couple of shortcomings. It’s a long process. And it works reasonably well in cities where you have labs all over the place, but not nearly as well if you live in a rural or remote community. The idea behind point of care is that wherever you need to do a test – at the doctor’s office, at the hospital, or even at home – the technology would be available.

How do luminescent materials play into this?

It’s easy to detect high levels of something, like glucose, with a glucose meter. There are a billion billion glucose molecules in a millilitre of blood. But it’s harder when there’s a small amount of the material, like just few cancer cells. Materials that glow can be very sensitive and, if targeted properly, allow us to pinpoint only a few cells. Light also comes in different colors, so you can look at different things simultaneously. You can literally see one, two, three green and red dots where the dots are different cell types.

A lot of the existing technologies work well, but they’re large and expensive. Or if they’re not so expensive, they provide less information. What we’re doing is taking the concept of the expensive technology and combining it with smartphones to develop cheaper, portable devices that are as informative as the big fancy ones.

How are you using smartphones?

We’ve developed a smartphone-based platform for isolating specific cell types and a biofunctional luminescent material that is magnetic. You take a sample – for example, blood – and combine it with the luminescent material. The luminescent material grabs onto a certain type of cell – in our case we’re looking for a type of breast cancer cell. The magnet ‘pulls’ those cells out and they’re transferred to a sample compartment. We take a regular photo of the compartment with a phone and in the picture you see these glowing dots. Those are individual cells glowing because of the luminescent material. Then we count the cells. So we have a very quick, cheap way of isolating and counting cell types.  You can see the result in minutes.

Can this be used to count other things?

In principle, you could use it to monitor pathogenic bacteria in food or water. Normally, when you test water you’d take the sample, put it on an agar plate, wait to let it grow bacterial colonies and then count them. It’s a multi-day process done in a lab. Our method stands to be faster and portable.

"What we’re doing is taking the concept of the expensive technology and combining it with smartphones to develop cheaper, portable devices that are as informative as the big fancy ones."

Silvia Moreno-Garcia
silvia.moreno-garcia@science.ubc.ca
604.827.5001