A handheld device being developed by a biotech firm in the U.K. can detect infectious diseases such as malaria in just 15 minutes, according to the inventors of the technology.

Q-POC

A British biotech company has developed a portable device called Q-POC that it says can analyze DNA samples and diagnose infectious diseases such as malaria. (Courtesy QuantuMDX)

The diagnostic kit, called Q-POC, is being billed by Newcastle-based QuantuMDX as a portable laboratory. A prototype is not much larger than an iPad, though developers are working on a version that will be small enough to fit into a doctor’s pocket.

QuantuMDX CEO Elaine Warburton said the machine, which is expected to be commercialized by 2015, will allow health professionals in rural areas of developing nations to test more efficiently for diseases such as malaria.

The company says Q-POC will also be able to display treatments to prescribe.

"If we can put a really powerful diagnostic in the palm of a health professional’s hand, give them the results and what drug to give at the same time, then it’s a win-win situation for all,” Warburton said.

Conventional testing takes weeks

British molecular biologist Jonathan O'Halloran, a co-founder of QuantuMDX, invented the device in his garage in 2008.

'If we can put a really powerful diagnostic in the palm of a health professional’s hand, give them the results and what drug to give at the same time, then it’s a win-win situation for all'- Elaine Warburton, QuantuMDX CEO

Traditional molecular diagnostics is carried out in specialized labs, where technicians analyze DNA samples using expensive machines.

Conventional testing devices can cost upwards of $10,000 and results often take weeks to return to the patient. The entire process requires medical infrastructure, a stable electricity supply and clean water — conditions that are not always available in poorer parts of the world.

QuantuMDX said QPOC will be a lightweight device expected to cost $750, making the test available to potential patients no matter where they live.

For now, the company is focusing on malaria. The mosquito-borne disease killed 660,000 people in 2010, according to the World Health Organization, with 90 per cent of those deaths occurring in Africa among children under the age of five.

With Q-POC, a pinprick's amount of blood would be needed for analysis. The sample would be slotted into a cartridge in the handheld reader.

Crowdfunding campaign

Warburton said the health-care professional would press a button and the sample would be sucked into a cartridge, the DNA would be analyzed and the malarial DNA separated. A biosensor computer chip reads the DNA information, translates it into binary code, and the diagnosis and treatment recommendations are displayed on the screen.

Elaine Warburton holds prototype

CEO Elaine Warburton is shown holding the Q-POC prototype. (QuantuMDx)

"Very simple. Very easy. No mess," Warburton said.

The company plans to develop tests for other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as sexually transmitted infections. Warburton also wants to see the device used in homes to detect viruses like the flu.  

QuantuMDX is now looking to raise money for clinical trials and has turned to crowdfunding. The developers plan to launch an Indiegogo campaign in February, and the funds will be used to conduct clinical trials for malarial detection in Gabon, on the west coast of Central Africa.

The campaign is not yet live, but a video describing the device can be viewed here.