Jose Gomez-Marquez, co-director of MIT’s Little Devices Lab, holds a sheet of paper diagnostic blocks, which can be easily printed and then combined in various ways to create customized diagnostic devices. Credit: Melanie Gonick/MIT

Researchers have developed new modular blocks that could result in cheap and easily built diagnostic tools for a plethora of different diseases.

A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Little Devices Lab has created a set of modular blocks that when put together in different ways can produce diagnostic devices that can test blood glucose levels in diabetic patients or detect viral infections, among other functions.

 “Our long-term motivation is to enable small, low-resources laboratories to generate their own libraries of plug-and-play diagnostics to treat their local patient populations independently,” Anna Young, co-director of MIT's Little Devices Lab, lecturer at the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, and one of the lead authors of the paper, said in a statement.

The new system—called Ampli blocks—could be particularly useful in the developing world because it requires little expertise to assemble different diagnostic devices, does not require refrigeration or special handling and costs only about six cents for four blocks.

“We see these construction kits as a way of lowering the barriers to making medical technology,” Jose Gomez-Marquez, co-director of the Little Devices Lab and the senior author of the paper, said in a statement.

The new system could be used to detect cancer, as well as Zika virus and other infectious diseases. The researchers are working on tests for human papilloma virus, malaria, and Lyme disease, among others. They are also working on blocks that can synthesize useful compounds, including drugs, as well as blocks that incorporate electrical components such as LEDs.

The components of the system consist of a sheet of paper or glass fiber sandwiched between a plastic or metal block and a glass cover, with each block able to be snapped together along any edge. Some of the blocks contain channels for samples to flow through, other blocks have turns and others can receive a sample from a pipette or mix multiple reagents together.

The blocks are also able to perform different biochemical functions because many contain antibodies that can detect a specific molecule in a blood or urine sample. The antibodies are attached to nanoparticles that change color when the target molecule is present.

Each user can create a diagnostic tool based on one reaction or a series of reactions by aligning the color coded blocks in different ways.

For example, the researchers combined blocks that detect three different molecules and created a test for isonicotinic acid, which can reveal whether tuberculosis patients are taking their medication.

In the past, researchers have primarily focused on developing smaller, portable diagnostic devices based on chemical reactions that occur on paper strips, which use lateral flow technology similar to how home pregnancy tests work.

However, this technology has hit some roadblocks, possibly because the devices are not designed with large-scale manufacturability in mind. Companies may also not be interested in mass-producing a diagnostic tool for diseases that do not affect a large number of people.

To overcome these obstacles, the researchers aimed to create a kit of modular components that can be put together to generate exactly what the individual user needs at the time. They were able to create approximately 40 different building blocks that lab workers can easily assemble on their own.

“When the electronic breadboard came out, that meant people didn't have to worry about building their own resistors or capacitors,” Gomez-Marquez said. “They could worry about what they actually wanted to use electronics for, which is to make the entire circuit.”

The team is now investigating large-scale manufacturing techniques and hope to be able to implement the new technology in small labs in both industrialized and developing countries.