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Whitworth professor’s project could shrink PCR tests and speed up results

A 3-D-printed miniature PCR test, developed by Dr. Philip Measor and colleagues at Spokane's Whitworth University.
Whitworth University
A 3-D-printed miniature PCR test, developed by Dr. Philip Measor and colleagues at Spokane's Whitworth University.

A scientist at Whitworth University has secured two patents for a miniaturized PCR test that could reduce the wait time for results from days to minutes.

Polymerase chain reaction tests became familiar to many Americans during the pandemic, because they’re used to confirm the presence of viral DNA. But PCR tests, invented 40 years ago, are much more well-known in the scientific community, where they are used for DNA studies, detection of viral and bacterial matter, and forensic investigation. But the tests usually have be shipped to a centralized laboratory and processed. Results might not be available for days.

For five years, Dr. Philip Measor, Whitworth colleagues Aaron Putzke and Kent Jones, and 19 students have been looking for way to reduce the size of PCR test kits and the amount of time it takes to get results.

“The field that I work in is called ‘Lab on a Chip,’” Measor said Wednesday. “We shrink down functions that are normally done in an entire lab onto a small chip.”

Measor and his colleagues have succeeded in producing a test version of a “Lab on a Chip” that can carry out the function of a PCR test, but in a single place and in a fraction of the time. If Measor’s findings are valid, the tests could be done at doctors’ offices, hospitals or urgent care clinics, and results could be ready in half an hour or less.

“During the pandemic, it became apparent that we really needed new ways to test viruses, and quickly,” Measor said. “So we designed probes to detect Covid-19, as well as the system and the actual micro-device itself, to demonstrate that this could be a viable technology moving forward.”

Ordinarily, “Lab on a Chip” concepts rely on semiconductors, which can be expensive. Measor’s PCR kit is made on a 3-D printer, greatly reducing manufacturing costs. He thinks that could open PCR tests to new places and new avenues of application.

“It could be detection of bacteria in foods; we could detect parasites…potentially even certain cancer detection, as long as you have a biomarker for that particular cancer,” Measor said.

But the process won’t happen overnight. Measor’s next step is clinical trials. Those will determine whether the results from the miniaturized PCR tests are consistently accurate and reliable. The tests would also figure out whether the small sample amounts used in the mini tests create problems for detection and accuracy, Measor said.

Once the clinical trials wrap and results are folded into in subsequent versions of the PCR chips, a company would likely have to step in to manufacture the kits on a wide scale. Getting to that stage could take three to five years, Measor said.

“The timeline really depends on who adopts it, who picks it up,” Measor said. “If we get the right partner, especially a larger corporation, they could bring it into production a lot quicker than we could.”

Measor said he wants to see the mini-PCR tests help people, so he plans to continue shepherding the project until another entity can take the baton.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.