Our team of researchers at MIT’s Little Devices Lab have developed a pocket sized laboratory for biology that allows anyone to invent and deploy rapid diagnostics to detect diseases like Zika and Dengue, as well as everyday biomarkers like cholesterol. Using plug and play reaction blocks, it can be as easy as snapping Legos together. The current approach to developing diagnostic tools involves shipping out samples to faraway labs for the development of tests that take too long and cost too much - but what would happen if everyone could have the tools they needed to design and make diagnostics? If the ability to diagnose disease was directly in the hands of those who most needed it?


In the last 10 years, one of the most promising tools in global and personalized health has fallen far short of its potential—rapid diagnostics. When it comes to at-home diagnostics, your local pharmacy may not have anything more interesting than a glucose, pregnancy or drug test, despite the fact that paper tests can easily be made to perform off-the-shelf. At the peak of the ebola crisis, after several million dollars in research funding to companies and academic institutions in America and Europe, only a single diagnostic test was advertised as a available —at around $25 a test. Meanwhile, the populations at the heart of the outbreak live on less than $2 a day. Ironically, although these tests are developed in labs thousands of miles away, the raw source material is often the blood of those same patients, and the equipment needed to create them is widely available; it's just the manufacturing process that results in these expensive tests.

The Rise of Mom and Pop Labs

In our travels we were inspired by the availability of "mom-and-pop labs" in global settings—small, neighborhood clinical labs with modest resources but talented technicians who already have the dexterity to design and assemble biological instruments locally. In the same way that breadboards and Arduinos can be used by laymen to dream up robots, smart mailboxes, and DIY drones, anyone can use the easily manipulable and modular Ampli blocks to design, tweak and create diagnostic tests. The average person doesn't make their own resistors or capacitors from scratch – they use ones that already exist in order to dream up new circuits. We can do the same thing for antibodies, nanoparticles, and color changing chemical reactions that tell us about our health and environment. Each Ampli block contains a singular chemical reaction that can be combined with other blocks in a way that allows for complex chain reactions. Together, these blocks can make diagnostics for Zika, ebola, dengue, glucose, gluten, and countless other diseases.

Creating a Global Biology Construction Set

There are thousands of published articles on paper based detection devices, but the methods are usually difficult to understand. Our team worked on matching those assays to a library of plug and play blocks that replicate the assays without using a laboratory. Want to use the 1970 Arkansas Test for detecting TB drugs?

Good luck interpreting:

KSCN + C7H7ClNO2S·Na (3H2O) → CNCl + C₅H₄N → [Intermediate] → Barbituric Acid → Polymethine blue dye

A little bit easier? Place 4 Ampli blocks in a row with the right color combinations – you'll get the same result. Take a picture of them, and someone else on the other side of the world can replicate your experiment, including the millions of mom and pop labs around the world. This doesn't just mean that it's easier to create diagnostic tools quickly for new diseases, or that it's cheaper to create them where they are needed instead of waiting for someone else several countries away to develop and produce them – with such easily replicable experiments, tests can also be quickly and efficiently improved and tailored, increasing their efficacy. Add in the fact that the blocks are reusable, and we have on our hands an entirely new and streamlined process for diagnostic development

Our hope is that in the next outbreak of disease, when foreign scientists come flying in with expensive rapid diagnostics, hawking them for $25, a local scientist will pull an Ampli out of their pocket and tell them they've already created exactly what they need, for less than $2.

Plug-and-play diagnostic devices [Anne Trafton/MIT News]