A single drop of blood carries a mind-boggling amount of information about your health. It can tell you whether you're coming down with the flu, if you have certain kinds of cancers, and if you have heart disease. It's just that the technology necessary to harness all of that information hasn't been available in the past. Soon, it will be.
The DNA Medicine Institute (DMI), a technology incubator and lab, took the $525,000 grand prize in the Nokia Sensing XChallenge today for creating a handheld device that can run hundreds—or even thousands—of lab tests using a drop of blood in a matter of minutes.
The device, called the Reusable Handheld Electrolyte and Lab Technology for Humans (rHEALTH) system, has been in the works since long before the XPrize competition was announced. It started out as a project geared towards NASA astronauts, so they could self-diagnose illnesses as they travel to Mars and elsewhere in space (these plans are still in the works, but the technology will first be tested on the International Space Station).
To get a reading with the device, a user inserts a drop of blood, which mixes with reagents called nanostrips. These nanostrips are similar to conventional test strips (like a pH test strip), but are shrunk down over a billionfold in volume, making them the size of several blood cells. Because they're so small, tens of thousands of them can be used with a single drop of blood, with each nanostrip testing for something different.
Next, the blood cells and nanostrips are shot at a laser at high speeds. Each nanostrip is measured and analyzed in microseconds, and in two minutes, lab values are ready to be evaluated. So far, DMI has tests for 22 lab values, including white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, hemoglobin, vitamin D, cytokines (these measure the amount of radiation a person has received, perhaps from cancer treatment or from spending lots of time in space), and CD4, which monitors the progression of HIV.
"We want to enable people to go back and say, 'I want my personal health analyzed now.' Once people are able to do that, they’re going to want to test themselves a lot more. For some diseases where we don’t know the cause, like some cancers, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's, we will be able to get a lot more information, and get [new] treatments much sooner," says Eugene Y. Chan, the founder and CEO of DMI. He anticipates that the technology could be as cheap as a cell phone once it's commercialized.
DMI is also a finalist in the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize, which challenges teams to build devices that can measure five health metrics and diagnose and interpret 15 different medical conditions. The Scanadu SCOUT, a crowdfunded device that measures pulse transit time, temperature, ECG, oximetry, heart rate, and breathing rate, is also a competitor in that competition.
The DMI team is the second winner in the Nokia Sensing XChallenge competition, which also ran last year with different teams that were all working to advance sensor technologies. The first winner was Gene-RADAR, a device from Nanobiosym that detects any disease with a genetic footprint using a drop of blood or saliva.