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Medical diagnostics today are still dominated by laborious and expensive laboratory tests. When a patient needs to be tested for a specific disease or health condition, a full testtube of blood is usually taken and sent to a central laboratory, where a specialized technician conducts the test. The results often only become available after several days. We have also witnessed during the corona crisis how unsatisfactory (low availability, long reaction time) the molecular test on COVID-19 works.

It works according to the concept drawn from nanotechnology that is also known as ”lab-on-a-chip.”

That has to be done differently, André Guedes is convinced of this. He is, together with Rafael Porcar, the founder of Droplite Technologies based in Barcelona. This is a start-up that is in the final phase of developing a diagnostic device that eliminates the need for a laboratory. “We have brought laboratory technology into this device.” Guedes shows a box that has the size of – let’s say – a Nespresso machine. It works according to the concept taken from nanotechnology that is also called ‘lab-on-a-chip’.

Institute of Photonic Sciences

At the heart of the device is a patented optical sensor that was developed at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (Instituto de Ciencias Fotónicas), a research center in Catalonia dedicated to the science and technology of light. Another important element is a cartridge fitted with microchannels which fluids pass through.

What takes place in the Droplite machine is that the sensor reads the micro cartridge that contains a blood sample. No more than one drop is needed (hence the name of the company). The disk may well look flat and transparent and have a dimension of about a square centimeter, but a complete biochemical test is built into it (the immunoassay). With the help of the immunoassay, the presence of an antibody or an antigen is determined quantitatively.

De Nespresso van de diagnostiek
André Guedes, CEO of Droplite. ©E. Kieckens

Droplite is developing a number of discs, each intended for a specific condition. For the time being, the company is going to concentrate on analyses for fertility treatments, allergies and infectious diseases. Currently, four different cartridges are being tested in hospital settings. One cartridge is configured to check for the hormone oestradiol (necessary for those undergoing IVF treatment), another detects allergies (mites, grass and fungi), and a third checks blood for signs of malaria.

Given that Droplite also focuses on diagnostics in veterinary medicine, a cartridge is also under development that will check for the presence of leishmaniasis, a typical disease that affects pets. Guedes says that Droplite does not have enough staff at the moment, otherwise they would have developed a ‘corona cartridge’ as well.

Microdisc with one drop of blood

The plan is that when Droplite comes onto the market in 2022, that the device will be distributed via a large pharmaceutical party to general practitioners, amongst others. The doctor who wants to test the patient for a specific condition merely needs to insert the micro cartridge with a drop of the patient’s blood into the Droplite device. The device subsequently does all the work.

The Droplite does look a bit like Nespresso, and not only because of its size. It also a matter of choosing the right cup (cartridge), making sure there is water (blood) in the container (reader) and pressing a button. At most, the difference is that a cup of coffee is ready slightly faster, but Droplite’s ten-minute service – which the company claims is the actual response time – is lightning- fast, however you look at it.

De Nespresso van de diagnostiek
The science center at the Technical University of Barcelona where Droplite is located. © E. Kieckens

There are, of course, rapid tests, but these are often not very reliable. ” It’s just a case of getting a speedy answer of yes or no,” says Guedes, who was born in Portugal and has already set up a successful start-up (Chirp Microsystems in California). You have ‘it’ or you don’t have it, you’re either positive or negative. Droplite’s results, by contrast, are quantitative. For example, it shows the concentration of a specific hormone in the bloodstream. This is indispensable for making a good diagnosis.

Smart diagnostics

Droplite is not the only player out there, as Guedes acknowledges. Major pharmaceutical companies as well as start-ups, such as the German DST (their logo is very similar to that of Droplite), are investing in what is referred to as smart diagnostics. “But all the same, we are in a good position to enter the market at an early stage.”

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