Cancer, HIV and heart disease detection in 15 minutes

A device developed in part by the U can screen diseases with a single drop of blood or urine.

Parker Lemke

Screening for serious illnesses like cancer, HIV and heart disease could one day become part of routine checkups thanks to a handheld device called z-Lab, which can detect an array of ailments using only a single drop of urine or other bodily fluid.

The new, potentially lifesaving technology, which uses sensors on biochips to detect early signs of disease, was developed by the Golden Gopher Magnetic Biosensing Team — a collaboration between University of Minnesota researchers and engineers, Mayo Clinic doctors and industry partners.

Z-Lab won a $120,000 prize on Monday from the Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE, a global competition for health care-sensing technology.

The prize money will help researchers pursue new ideas for z-Lab’s next version, said electrical and computer engineering professor Jian-Ping Wang, who led the project.

“We can detect multiple health indicators at the same time with a very small amount of samples,” Wang said.

The wide range of health conditions that the device can spot includes brain tumors, HIV and lung and ovarian cancer, he said.

The device bases its readings on biomarkers, oftentimes proteins, which correspond with the presence of certain diseases identified in samples, team members said.

“Prostate cancer, lung cancer — these are all things that have biomarkers,” said Todd Klein, an electrical engineering doctoral candidate who worked on the z-Lab team. “What those are is small molecules in your blood or urine.”

Once its user places a drop of fluid on the device’s biochip, z-Lab displays up to 10 biomarkers on a smartphone or tablet screen within 15 minutes.

Amy Skubitz, a lab medicine and pathology professor who researches ovarian cancer, said z-Lab essentially translates her laboratory’s biomarker research for clinical use.

Next, the device will make its way to the commercial market, Wang said, adding that the technology has already been transferred to a 2014 University start-up, Zepto Life Technology.

Early detection cuts costs, saves lives

Late treatment of disease plays a role in rising health care costs, Wang said. This was the case with his father, who was diagnosed with relatively advanced cancer, he said.

“Nowadays people just try to fix the disease at a very late stage,” Wang said. “We shouldn’t treat the patient too late; we should find things early.”

Early detection not only drives the price of medical care down, but it also improves a person’s chances of survival, said Skubitz, who is a z-Lab contributor.

“Right now, when a woman comes to the clinic, they do a blood draw and take like 10 milliliters of blood,” she said of ovarian cancer patients. “Then they send it off to a lab, which might take days or weeks to get your results back.”

While doctors usually detect ovarian cancer after a patient shows symptoms, she said, a biosensing device like z-Lab could expedite the disease-detection process and make it more practical to test for serious conditions at frequent intervals.

“Right there in the clinic, you could already tell somebody that they have these markers and whether or not they have a disease,” Skubitz said. “It will save a lot of money, and it will save a lot of lives.”

The device could potentially make early disease detection practical in developing countries often hindered by a lack of advanced infrastructure and medical equipment, said Dr. Levi Downs, an associate professor and gynecologic oncologist.

“If it’s successfully developed, it can detect very, very small concentrations of proteins in very small volumes of fluid at what appears to be a relatively low cost,” he said.

Downs, who also researches cervical cancer screening and detection, said current cervical cancer testing methods are costly and require significant personnel and infrastructure investment.

The z-Lab device could provide rapid diagnoses, said Dr. Andrew Badley, an infectious disease professor at the Mayo Clinic who researches HIV infections — an illness whose treatment benefits from early detection.

“[The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommended some number of years ago that every adult in the United States be tested for HIV,” he said. “Having this kind of testing system in a physician office, in an emergency room or urgent care center would facilitate that.”