The complex process of sequencing DNA is getting ever faster, cheaper, and more compact. Now a team of researchers at New Zealand’s University of Otago has developed a portable, handheld sequencing device roughly the size of a clay brick.
The battery-powered Freedom4 could potentially be used as a field tool for forensics, environmental monitoring, and rapidly diagnosing viral infectious diseases, including Ebola, in humans and animals. “Vets could drive around a farm analyzing samples from various locations, make their diagnoses, and treat infected animals—all in one trip,” Jo-Ann Stanton, the project’s principal investigator, told the University of Otago’s news site.
Stanton’s team, which spent the past six years on the project, says the device can deliver results within an hour. The New Zealand Institute of Environmental & Scientific Research used a prototype of Freedom4 to run tests for E. coli and several gastrointestinal and respiratory viruses, including H1N1 (commonly known as swine flu), and reportedly found that the lightweight device performs on a par with much bigger laboratory-based DNA analysis systems.
“Essentially a DNA multiplier, Freedom4 uses temperature changes and an enzyme to repeatedly split and copy DNA over and over again so it can be read easily,” explains Popular Mechanics. The university has already taken steps to commercialize the technology.
When it comes to size, Freedom4 has competition. England’s Oxford Nanopore Technologies has a genome sequencer designed to fit into a USB port, but scientists say the technology still needs work. A number of other companies have developed portable labs for rapidly diagnosing diseases, such as AIDS, and allowing people to monitor their own hormone levels.
Some of these novel testing devices may soon be subject to more stringent regulation in the U.S. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to increase oversight of lab tests developed in house. “Just as drugs need to be safe and effective for treating diseases, medical devices used to help diagnose disease and direct therapy also need to be safe and effective,” Margaret Hamburg, the FDA commissioner, said at a news conference. Faulty test results, she pointed out, “could lead patients to seek unnecessary treatment or to delay or to forgo treatment altogether.”
Critics say the FDA’s decision will stifle innovation, but the New York Times points out that the agency will exempt tests for rare diseases or for which there is no approved alternative.