UCSB scientists develop smartphone-based COVID-19 test

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Posted at 2:15 PM, Feb 03, 2022

A group of local scientists and professors is trying to make COVID-19 testing more easily accessible around the globe.

“We came up with a smartphone-based COVID and influenza test diagnostic,” said Douglas Heithoff, UC Santa Barbara Mahan Lab Project Scientist.

About a year and a half ago, a research team of about ten UC Santa Barbara professors, scientists, and Cottage Hospital physicians set out to develop the most affordable, rapid, reliable, and sensitive test on the market.

The findings were published last week.

A small amount of the patient’s saliva is collected and analyzed using the smartphone app and a diagnostic kit.

“We use the smartphone's camera to measure a chemical reaction that contains a fluorescent dye that glows and as it amplifies the virus, it starts glowing more and basically more glowing, more virus,” said Michael Mahan, UC Santa Barbara Professor of Infectious Diseases.

Results are available in 25 minutes on a smartphone app, according to Professor Mahan who is the lead on the project.

“It not only tells you you're positive, it tells you how much. It quantitates the virus in your saliva,” he explained.

Professor Mahan says it meets PCR test standards but at a fraction of the time and cost.

Researchers say the lab kit can be produced for a one-time cost of $100. It requires a smartphone, a hot plate, a 96-well plate, and LED lights.

Screening tests can be run for less than $7 for the cost of chemicals, versus $10 to $20 per rapid antigen test or $100 to $150 per PCR test.

“We think we can get it down to $2 a test for both COVID and the flu,” Professor Mahan said. “We've already shown, we've already published that we can do it for UT, urinary tract infections for a dollar.”

It’s a process called smaRT-LAMP, a technology that’s been around for 20 years.

“What's really key is the isothermal. It's at one temperature and because it's at one temperature, you don't need a fancy piece of equipment. You just need a hot plate from Walmart, that will work. Whereas PCR requires changes of temperatures,” he explained.

Professor Mahan says too many false-positive results have held back the technology but they’ve found a way to solve the problem due to high sensitivity.

With the science discovered and published, the goal is to roll it out and manufacture it as a home-based test and get it FDA approved.

“We’d like to see this test be used worldwide,” Heithoff said. “Obviously, there's a lot of nations that don't have access to the quality of healthcare we have here in this country and so they would definitely benefit from a very inexpensive, easy-to-use test.”

The process allows for up to 96 tests at one time.

The free app is only developed for Android at this time but professors say the next step is developing it for Apple products.