Professor Collaborates on Project That Lets Labs Construct Diagnostic Tests ‘Like Legos’

Office of Communications | May 16, 2018
A user assembles a custom configuration of a paper-based disease diagnostic

A user assembles a custom configuration of a paper-based disease diagnostic
Image by: Elizabeth Phillips

These devices here are modular in a way like LEGOs, because you can snap them together in any configuration you want.

Paper Published Today in Advanced Healthcare Materials­­­

Kimberly Hamad-Schifferli, an associate professor of engineering at UMass Boston and a visiting scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, has collaborated with researchers at MIT’s Little Devices Lab to develop a set of modular blocks that can be put together in different ways to test blood glucose levels in diabetic patients or detect viral infection, among other things.

“Paper-based tests are incredibly useful because they are inexpensive and easy to use, but users can’t modify them if they want to add more things to test for, or change how they flow,” said Hamad-Schifferli, an advisor on the project and one of the coauthors of a research paper that appears today in the ­­­journal Advanced Healthcare Materials. “These devices here are modular in a way like LEGOs, because you can snap them together in any configuration you want. So, they are a new step towards paper assays that a user can design.”

The Little Devices Lab researchers have developed 40 different Ampli blocks that lab workers in developing countries can easily assemble on their own, just as people began assembling their own radios and other electronic devices from commercially available electronic “breadboards” in the 1970s. The benefits to these Ampli blocks are numerous: It costs about six cents for four blocks, and they don’t require refrigeration or special handling. And since the blocks are color-coded by function, predesigned devices can be built by following the instructions researchers plan to put online.

“We see these construction kits as a way of lowering the barriers to making medical technology,” says Jose Gomez-Marquez, codirector of the Little Devices Lab and the senior author of the research paper.

You can see a paper-based disease diagnostic being developed in the photo above. First, the user places colored blocks onto a white grid. The sample in the tube can then be pipetted onto the block configuration and the test, which in this case is for a cancer biomarker, can be run.

The blocks can be snapped together and aligned in different ways, allowing the user to create diagnostics based on one reaction or a series of reactions. Some of the blocks contain channels for samples to flow straight through, and some have turns. Many blocks contain antibodies attached to nanoparticles that change color when the target molecule is present, indicating a positive result.

The researchers found that in some ways, these blocks can outperform previous versions of paper diagnostic devices. For example, they found that they could run a sample back and forth over a test strip multiple times, enhancing the signal. This could make it easier to get reliable results from urine and saliva samples, which are usually more dilute than blood samples, but are easier to obtain from patients.

“These are things that cannot be done with standard lateral flow tests, because those are not modular—you only get to run those once,” Hamad-Schifferli said.

The team is now working on tests for human papilloma virus, malaria, and Lyme disease, among others. They are also working on blocks that can synthesize useful compounds such as drugs, as well as others that incorporate electrical components such as LEDs.

“Our long-term motivation is to enable small, low-resources laboratories to generate their own libraries of plug-and-play diagnostics to treat their local patient populations independently,” said Anna Young, codirector of MIT’s Little Devices Lab and one of the lead authors of the research paper

The MIT team has already sent Ampli block kits to labs in Chile and Nicaragua, where they have been used to develop devices to monitor patient adherence to tuberculosis treatment and to test for a genetic variant that makes malaria more difficult to treat.

The researchers are investigating large-scale manufacturing techniques, and they hope to launch a company to manufacture and distribute kits around the world.

The research was funded by a gift from Autodesk and the U.S. Public Health Service.

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city's history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 11 colleges and graduate schools serve more than 16,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit

Tags: engineering , kimberly hamad-schifferli , research , science

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