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This Portable Lab Can Test Refugees at Risk of Epidemics in Just 35 Minutes

Canadian researchers have created a small, portable appliance that can check for disease immunity in the same way a lab would — but in less time and for a lower cost.

The lab in a box — or “Mr. Box,” as the researchers from the University of Toronto have named it — can do on-the-spot blood tests to determine whether a person has developed antibodies against measles and rubella, according to CTV News.

What’s more is that the portable lab can provide results in just 35 minutes.

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It works by placing a drop of blood onto a microchip, which then goes inside the device that moves the blood around using electrostatic pulses. The device then looks for antibodies to measles or rubella as the blood moves, which determines whether or not the person tested has developed an immunity to the diseases.

The research team recently published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine after testing it in the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, where a measles and rubella immunization campaign had taken place.

The group tested children and adult blood samples using Mr. Box and also sent samples to a laboratory at the Kenyan Medical Research Institute in Nairobi to compare.

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Mr. Box’s results matched standard lab testing 86% of the time for measles, and 84% for rubella, according to the Associated Press.

The researchers say the device’s accuracy will improve, which means these kinds of blood tests could be done more accurately in the field.

This device currently looks for immunity to measles and rubella, but it’s possible this technology could be applied to tests for other infectious diseases, according to University of Toronto professor Aaron Wheeler, the study’s senior author.

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"We have a very flexible platform," Julian Lamanna, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry on the research team, told CTV News. "So we are also working on tests for malaria and Zika, which are slightly different in their biochemistry. But you can imagine this flexible architecture being used for testing for a whole variety of different diseases."

In order to check if a population is at risk of an epidemic, blood tests like this need to be done — but right now, they are time consuming and expensive.

Portable testing like this would allow on-the-spot testing with quick results in an inexpensive way.

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