Diagnosing Similar Diseases in Low Resource Settings

Academic Research
Point of Care
RSC Lab on a Chip
Paul Yager
Lab on a Chip



April 18, 2012

Diagnostics in Low-Resource Settings

A lot of excitement surrounding microfluidics has been about its promising use in diagnosis in low-resource settings. Many infectious diseases present in developing countries are manageable or treatable with available medications, but still account for 1/3 of deaths. In these areas, multiple diseases present similar symptoms, leading to misdiagnosis and thus incorrect treatment. Hundreds of blood-based microfluidic immunoassays are available for diagnostic purposes, but they’re not all created equally. They require varying levels of sample processing or analysis that prohibit their deployment in low-resource settings. Further, while some diseases may have similar symptoms, they might require different detection techniques, with varying sample volumes, reagents and processing time, making it difficult to detect multiple diseases within the same system. This is the focus of recent work from Paul Yager of University of Washington. In his Lab on a Chip paper, “Progress toward multiplexed sample-to-result detection in low resource settings using microfluidic immunoassay cards,” he and his colleagues develop a system to detect both Typhoid fever and malaria.

Malaria and Typhoid Dual Detection

The developed system is intended to integrate with the DxBox, an ongoing project focused on a point-of-care diagnostic device. As I mentioned before, different diseases might require different means of detection. In this case, the researchers decided to detect antigens generated by malaria parasites and IgM antibodies generated by the host in response to the bacteria responsible for typhoid (Salmonella Typhi). The microfluidic card is based on a flow-through membrane immunoassay (FMIA) composed primarily of nitrocellulose, instead of traditional microfluidic channels. Nitrocellulose is essentially paper and provides a lot of surface area, creating shorter assay times. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) are standard lab assays and will be replicated using FMIA. However, ELISA can be slow (more than 3 hours) due to the diffusion between the bulk fluid and the capture service, while the FMIA can perform the same task in half an hour due to its high surface area.

The proposed card is compact and intended to integrate with the DxBox. All sample processing occurs on-card including IgG filtration. This also depicts the porous nitrocellulose membrane of the FMIA which provides high assay surface area.

Immunoassay Process

The detections of both analytes are run in parallel and start with the same unfiltered blood. The card extracts the plasma with a filter, eliminating whole blood cells, and this is where the assays for malaria and typhoid diverge. The typhoid assay must filter out any IgG antibodies (which would cause false positives when testing for IgM) and dilute the sample further. This results in a four-fold increase in the sample volume used in the malaria segment. Each analyte is then captured by immobilized reagents and labeled with gold nanoparticles conjugated to antibodies. The entire process is driven by pneumatic pressure and valves. Pneumatics is cheaper than alternatives, plus it doesn’t dilute the sample with an additional liquid, but it comes at the cost of introduced air bubbles. Air vents were incorporated to eliminate bubbles, but they were not totally eradicated and still obstructed the image analysis sometimes. Within the DxBox, analysis is intended to be carried out by a webcam. However, the current design of the system created nonuniform lighting (which can be rectified), and a flatbed scanner was used instead.

The system processes blood from the same sample in different, parallel steps to test for malaria and typhoid.


This microfluidic card was tested on blood samples with Typhoid or malaria. Unfortunately the researchers did not test on a large enough sample to evaluate clinical utility or determine a limit of detection for the card. Currently lab-based ELISA has a limit of detection near 4 ng/mL, which is clinically relevant. The researchers also ran each sample on ELISA and a bench-top FMIA in addition to the on-card FMIA. Comparing the quantified signal of the on-card FMIA to ELISA resulted in an R2 value of 0.73, and on-card FMIA vs bench-top FMIA had an R2 value of 0.92. These are fine results that demonstrate how closely the on-card FMIA follows the bench-top methods, but it would mean a whole lot more given a limit of detection.


The results of this card design seem promising but will mean a lot more with more testing. The pneumatic actuation was a major hindrance to project success. While they could operate at different pressures, the actuators were unable to actually control the liquid velocity. Also, the pneumatics introduced bubbles into the card, which not only affected the assay process but the final image to be analyzed as well. While only two diseases were showcased here, the authors have indicated that there is already work to create a more complete fever symptom panel. They also acknowledged that this format could be applied to other panels aimed at diarrheal diseases and sexually transmitted diseases as well. This format could really be adapted for a variety of diseases, with the disease diagnosis as the limiting factor for card design.


Lafleur, L., Stevens, D., McKenzie, K., Ramachandran, S., Spicar-Mihalic, P., Singhal, M., Arjyal, A., Osborn, J., Kauffman, P., Yager, P., & Lutz, B. (2012). Progress toward multiplexed sample-to-result detection in low resource settings using microfluidic immunoassay cards Lab on a Chip, 12 (6) DOI: 10.1039/C2LC20751F