Dec. 2 (UPI) -- Scientists have successfully miniaturized the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, the technology that powers the most popular tests for detecting viruses and bacteria in biological samples.
PCR is usually performed in the lab, but the new lab-on-a-chip, described Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications, could allow diagnostic testing to be done on-site, returning results in a matter of minutes.
To build their lab-on-a-chip, researchers at Imperial College London installed the miniature PCR onto a silicon chip, the same platform used to make electronic chips.
"Rather than sending swabs to the lab or going to a clinic, the lab could come to you on a fingernail-sized chip," lead researcher Firat Guder said in a news release.
"You would use the test much like how people with diabetes use blood sugar tests, by providing a sample and waiting for results -- except this time it's for infectious diseases," said Guder, a bioengineer at Imperial.
Typically, the silicon chip production process requires massive "clean rooms," factories that have been thoroughly sanitized.
For the new study, researchers developed a new, less-demanding production method. The breakthrough could allow silicon chips to be produced at a variety of facilities around the world.
So far, scientists have used their lab-on-a-chip, dubbed TriSilix, to diagnose a type of bacterial infection common in animals. The miniaturized PCR also successfully identified a synthetic version of the genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19.
The lab-on-a-chip consists of a DNA sensor, temperature detector and heater to trigger the testing process, which can be powered by a smartphone battery.
Researchers plan to further validate the technology using a variety of clinical bacteria and virus samples.
In the future, researchers suggest the TriSilix could be integrated into blood sugar test-style devices and used at home to diagnose colds, flu, urinary tract infections and COVID-19.
At-home testing technologies like TriSilix could eliminate the costs of transporting biological samples, as well as eliminate the need for potentially infected patients to leave their home, increasing the risk of transmission, researchers say.
"Monitoring infections at home could even help patients, with the help of their doctor, to personalize and tailor their antibiotic use to help reduce the growing problem of antibiotic resistance," said Estefania Nunez-Bajo, also an Imperial bioengineer.