Most viral test kits rely on labor- and time-intensive laboratory preparation and analysis techniques; for example, tests for the novel coronavirus can take days to detect the virus from nasal swabs. Researchers have demonstrated an inexpensive yet sensitive smartphone-based testing device for viral and bacterial pathogens that takes about 30 minutes to complete and costs roughly $50.

There are a few preparatory steps currently performed outside of the device and the team is working on a cartridge that has all of the reagents needed to be a fully integrated system. Other researchers are using the novel coronavirus genome to create a mobile test for COVID-19 and making an easily manufactured cartridge that would improve testing efforts.

The study began with the goal of detecting a panel of viral and bacterial pathogens in horses, including those that cause severe respiratory illnesses similar to those presented in COVID-19. Horse pathogens used in the study are harmless to humans.

A photo of the first PathTracker clip-on box. (Photo: Brian Cunningham)

The new testing device, called PathTracker, is comprised of a small cartridge containing testing reagents and a port to insert a nasal extract or blood sample. The whole unit clips to a smartphone. Inside the cartridge, the reagents break open a pathogen’s outer shell to gain access to its RNA. A primer molecule then amplifies the genetic material into many millions of copies in about 10 or 15 minutes. A fluorescent dye stains the copies and glows green when illuminated by blue LED light, which is then detected by the smart-phone’s camera.

The test can be performed rapidly on passengers before getting on a flight, on people going to a theme park, or before events like a conference or concert. Cloud computing via a smartphone application could allow a negative test result to be registered with event organizers or as part of a boarding pass for a flight. Or, a person in quarantine could give themselves daily tests, register the results with a doctor, and then know when it’s safe to rejoin society.

For more information, contact Brian Cunningham, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 217-265-6291.