Blood tests are important diagnostic tools. Current testing procedures, however, are expensive and time-consuming, while sophisticated test equipment is bulky and difficult to transport.

University of Toledo researchers have addressed these drawbacks by developing a low-cost, portable technique that is able to quickly and reliably detect specific proteins in a human blood sample. This innovative technique, described in the Sept. 1 issue of Biomedical Optics Express, could help in a wide range of medical sensing applications, including diagnosing diseases like cancer and diabetes long before clinical symptoms arise.

“The detection and measurement of specific blood proteins can have a huge impact on numerous applications in medical diagnostic sensing,” said Brent Cameron with the department of bioengineering at the University of Toledo, one of the paper’s authors. “This method has the potential to provide similar functionality of large and costly clinical instrumentation currently used to identify and quantify blood proteins for a fraction of current costs.”

Human blood contains thousands of different proteins, many of which are essential for day-to-day mechanics of life. Others are formed only in response to certain diseases. Knowing which protein is the hallmark of an illness and singling it out of a blood sample leads to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment.

The UT researchers borrowed a trick from nature, using artificially created molecules called aptamers to latch on to free-floating proteins in the blood. Aptamers are custom-made and commercially available short strands of nucleic acid. Similar to antibodies, they connect to one type of molecule, and only one type. Aptamers, however, have advantages over antibodies in clinical testing. They are able to tolerate a wide range of pH (acid and base environments) and salt concentrations. They have high heat stability, are easily synthesized, and cost efficient.

“This approach is very robust in that unique aptamers for almost any given protein can be identified,” said Cameron. “This makes the technique very specific and adaptable for any given application.” The approach also requires less-bulky optics, which is the key to the portability aspect of the design.

For commercial use in medical diagnostics, according to Cameron, the technology is three to five years away, pending FDA procedures and filings. “We are currently in the procedure of determining suitable aptamers for a range of target proteins for both diabetic and cancer-related applications,” he said.

For a more detailed description of this aptamer blood testing approach, click here.