Healthcare, but in paper form

Adrian Gallo and Lisa Hildebrand

Have you ever thought of how a pregnancy test works? You probably know you can get a pregnancy test at a hospital to be 100% sure, but that test requires lab work, people power, time, and money (cough cost of healthcare cough) to get that answer. Instead, you can pee on a small piece of plastic and get an answer within minutes! But under the hood of the at-home pregnancy test is a lot of physics and chemistry happening in an automated fashion. First, the sample (urine) needs to be pulled, by capillary action, to be exposed to a few different reactions in a specific order to find a specific molecule indicative of being pregnant and it shows up as an easy to read color. Imagine if this rapid point of care diagnostic tool could be available for other uses.

Lael Wentland is a PhD Candidate in the Bio-engineering department who’s researching paper-based microfluidic diagnostic tools for rare diseases. While these little devices are not made of regular binder paper, they are made of a porous membrane that pulls up the sample in a predictable way – hence the ‘fluidics’ part of her work. The ‘micro’ in microfluidics is because she’s focused on samples where there are only a couple drops available. Lael’s first device she’s manufacturing is to help people with a rare metabolic disorder (phenylketonuria – where people cannot break down phenylalanine, an essential amino acid) that can be exacerbated or ameliorated by the food they eat. There are tests available to monitor the body’s concentration of phenylalanine, but they take days to get results! Since us humans can’t wait days in between meals, there is a need for these individuals to monitor their own phenylalanine levels because too little of this amino acid will prevent the body from performing basic functions but a build up of this amino acid and you may go into seizures. Lael successfully made a new device that is rapid, accurate, disposable, and is shelf stable for at least two weeks. Why only two weeks? Well in the middle of her long-term testing COVID-19 shut everything down; getting blood samples from patients to run her tests was no longer a viable option to continue shelf-life tests. Instead, she pivoted to yet another rare disease, but expects to return to her initial research before she finishes her PhD. In the future, Lael expects to move into industry so she can continue her proof-of-concept work from the academic setting, can be scaled up and mass produced so it is more accessible to a wider range of people.
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