A new test allows people to check to see if they are deficient in a pair of key nutrients in just a few minutes.

A team of engineers and nutritionists from Cornell University has developed the new low-cost, rapid test that can detect iron and vitamin A deficiencies from the home within 15 minutes.

Dr. Saurabh Mehta, an associate professor of global health, epidemiology and nutrition in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell, and a senior author on the new research, explained in an interview with R&D Magazine that Iron and vitamin A deficiencies are a global problem.

“We decided to combine iron and Vitamin A mostly because those are the two nutrients that the World Health Organization [WHO] recommends for routine data on from all of its member states,” Mehta said. “The public health consequence of these deficiencies is relatively huge.

“I expect the impact [of the test] to be substantial, even in the U.S., as well as internationally,” he added.

Mehta said the current testing process is long and arduous, where blood is collected by a physician and then sent to a central lab for the testing. The results are then sent back to the patient.

The portable diagnostic system is about the size of a lunchbox and contains a blood sample test strip, similar to what is used by diabetics.

The test strip includes three types of antibodies, which bind to specific biomarkers in the user’s serum.

The strip measures concentrations of retinol binding protein, which is important for eyesight, C-reactive protein, an infection indicator and the protein ferritin to find anemia.

According to Mehta, vitamin A and iron deficiencies affect more than a third of the world’s population and can cause blindness, anemia, and possibly death. Women and children are particularly impacted.

According to WHO, there are about 250 million preschool-age children that are deficient in vitamin A, and 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children around the world become blind annually, half of which end up dying as they become vulnerable to other diseases.

Mehta said the problem is particularly stark in developing countries that do not have the tools needed to enable early diagnosis.

According to Mehta, the test could be used as part of an annual physical and the discretion of the physician. In addition, the test can be administered to anyone who would be considered a high risk for iron or vitamin A deficiencies, including children and pregnant women.

Mehta said that the test might be particularly useful for tests in children, where drawing a larger amount of blood is often difficult. 

Mehta and David Erickson, the Sibley College Professor at Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, began working on point of care tests for nutritional deficiencies and infectious diseases about five years ago.

“We are currently working on a couple of other biomarkers and we have published about 10 or 11 papers in the last couple of years on different biomarkers,” Mehta said. “This is the first one that combines multiples in one strip, in one test.”

Mehta said the goal is to eventually create a strip test with about five biomarkers on the same strip.

“At some point there will be some engineering limitations and chemistry limitations that will make it hard to add more biomarkers to one test,” he said.

The next step will be clinical trials and eventually commercialization of the test.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.