Portable test kits represent an advance in disease diagnosis, as their ready availability increases chances of earlier detection and treatment. This type of technology is constantly evolving, and sometimes inspiration can come from surprising sources. Such is the case with research carried out by a Swiss team, which has borrowed from the mechanics behind the firefly's glow to develop a sensitive molecule detector.
The team at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPLF) in Switzerland have manipulated luciferase, the enzyme that creates the light in fireflies, to signal the finding of a target protein. The work was carried out in the lab of Kai Johnsson, led by Alberto Schena and Rudolf Griss.
The researchers attached a synthetic chemical tag to the enzyme, which they say is much simpler than mutating the luciferase for it to detect a target protein. The tag first blocks luciferase so it cannot produce light. When it detects its target protein, it attaches to that, freeing the luciferase to light up again and signal that a target has been found.
The researchers say the light signal luciferase gives out is strong enough to be seen with the naked eye, which means a system based on this method will not need any expensive reading devices. And this is the point of it, as the researchers aim at creating cheap, rapid test kits to be used by consumers, such as paper strips developed to detect E. coli.
"The main application we actually envision is the use of our bioluminescent tools for the detection of target biological molecules with a simple device, similar to a digital camera," Schena tells Gizmag. "Such devices can be used directly by the patient for self-testing, instead of performing such analysis in a hospital setting. That's where we see the highest impact of our technology on society."
The team has founded a startup called Lucentix to develop its biochemical tools into a commercial product, such as disposable test-strips and a handheld reader.
"The patient at home pricks his finger and puts a little drop of blood onto the test-strip, then inserts the test-strip into a reader, that gives the precise concentration of the biomolecule of interest within five minutes," explains Schena.
The new method is described in detail in the journal Nature Communications.
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