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Smartphone DNA sequencer developed

23 January 2017

By Kulraj Singh Bhangra

Appeared in BioNews 885

Scientists have created a smartphone microscope attachment that can image and analyse DNA sequences.

The team says the device can analyse DNA sequences from tissue samples on-site, without having to first extract the DNA. This could allow clinicians and healthcare workers to test for disease-causing mutations without requiring large and expensive equipment.

'It's very important to have these molecular testing approaches at a doctor's office or where care is being given,' said lead co-author of the study Professor Mats Nilsson of Stockholm and Uppsala University. He adds: 'Oftentimes, advanced lab-based testing is performed at major hospitals, which is limiting, as not everyone has access to a hospital that can perform these tests.'

The researchers designed a lightweight optical attachment which can be produced using a 3D printer and used with a standard smartphone camera. To use it, a tissue sample is treated with chemicals that tag the DNA bases with fluorescent markers. When the sample is placed in the device, it records multi-mode images and analyses them to read the DNA sequence, or to identify genetic mutations. The device can also detect small amounts of cancer cells in a population of normal cells.

The images produced are at the same quality of those created by a traditional light microscope. If the device were mass-produced, each unit could be manufactured for £406 each.

'A typical microscope with multiple imaging modes would cost around $10,000, whereas higher-end versions, such as the one we used to validate our mobile-phone microscope, would go for $50,000 or more,' said Professor Aydogan Ozcan from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and lead researcher.

The researchers say this device could help clinicians to provide optimal and personalised treatments for diseases. Due to its sequencing speed, ease of use and low cost, it could also be used to quickly identify effective treatments during disease outbreaks, such as for tuberculosis in areas of the world where antibiotic-resistant strains exist. The device could also be used to quickly and inexpensively identify the genetic make-up of cancerous tumours.

'This early study suggests mobile phone technology could potentially speed up this process and reduce costs, but much more research is needed to find out if it's reliable and accurate enough to make its way into the clinic,' Dr Justin Alford senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, who wasn't involved in the study, told BBC News.

The technology was developed by researchers from UCLA and Stockholm University and Uppsala University, Sweden. The results were published in Nature Communications.

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