The Ebola outbreak of 2014 that ravaged West Africa has been one of the deadliest epidemics to sweep across villages and countries in recent memory. With a cure being elusive, the only options were containment and isolation; preventing the spread of the horrific disease. Images of the victims beamed across the world’s news channels left people stunned and praying that the disease was contained as much as possible and that scientists could find a cure. However, diagnosing Ebola in the early stages is difficult and thus a carrier could spread the disease unknowingly as early symptoms are non-specific to Ebola.
At such a time James Collins, a synthetic biologist at Boston University believed he’d found a quick and inexpensive way to diagnose Ebola. Collins’ paper-based diagnostics involved adapting of a workhorse lab method known as a “cell free system,” and embedding it onto porous paper. Essential enzymes as well as specially designed genes were added which would be triggered by a matching strand of DNA or RNA, like RNA-based Ebola. This method was considered a big deal at the time even as it awaited further testing.
However, it has given rise to numerous paper based technologies which can help from diagnoses of deadly disease to simple monitors for dehydration, tests for malaria, water quality as well powering devices like biobatteries. James Collins and his group led a similar application of this technology during the more recent Zika outbreak. To detect Zika, the researchers added new components to the system which would identify individual strains of Zika and freeze-dried them on the paper. According to MIT review, the test can process a sample in about three hours, can be stored at room temperature for up to year and costs less than a dollar to make.
The paper-based diagnostics market is estimated to be worth a cool and stunning $8.35 billion by 2022 according to Grand View Research, Inc. Increase in lifestyle diseases, higher prevalence of infectious diseases, rising geriatric population and higher adoption rates in the Asia Pacific region are considered to be the driving factors of this market.
Paper-based technologies have been developed or adapted to detect more common diseases like cancer and malaria. Chemists at the Ohio State University are developing paper strips that detect diseases including cancer and malaria for a cost of 50 cents per strip. Requiring just a drop of blood, the tests are easy to use and send for lab testing. The low cost test is aimed at cheap diagnosis in rural Africa and southeast Asia where hundreds of thousands are affected and killed by malaria.
Researchers at Purdue University developed a paper-based skin patch which reacts with sweat to identify levels of dehydration and aid physical performance. They have received many interested inquiries from industrial companies and have also filed for a patent. The fields of research into and application of paper-based technologies have diversified to disposable electronics. Researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York have created a bacteria-powered battery on a single sheet of paper that can power disposable electronics. The innovation is being viewed as a revolutionary use of bio-batteries as a power source in remote, dangerous and resource-limited areas. It involves chromatography paper, silver nitrate and a few drops of bacteria-filled liquid to create the bio-battery. Said researcher Seokheun Choi,
We are excited about this because microorganisms can harvest electrical power from any type of biodegradable source, like wastewater, that is readily available. I believe this type of paper biobattery can be a future power source for papertronics.”
Paper-based diagnosis along with microfluidic devices also considered as Lab-on-a-chip (LOC) technologies, are aimed at reducing the time and costs of diagnosis. Although they have been hailed as having the potential to change the face pathology and medical laboratory work, LOC tech, including paper-based ones, are more a part of research papers and medical journal than being a part of an active medical laboratory. Mazher-Iqbal Mohammed, a research fellow at Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria, Australia who also co-authored a paper on the challenges faced by LOC devices noted,
Many academic researchers are found guilty of leaving the challenge of technology transfer into a commercially viable product as an afterthought over being a critical consideration of the overall engineering process chain.”
A lack of standardisation also prevents the mass production, development and implementation of such devices. However, the future of LOC devices is bright as researchers boost the devices’ capabilities by integrating imaging capabilities. The report by Grand View Research, Inc. also notes that the benefits of paper-based technologies like disposability, user friendliness, low cost and advancements like paper based sensor, 3D wax printing devices will boost their advantages over conventional technologies.