Lab-on-a-Drone and Other Innovative Point-of-Care Devices

  • Lab-in-a-Box…Think Bento
  • Lab-on-a-Robot…Rolls Along 
  • Lab-on-a-Drone…PCR-on-the-Fly

Honey! I shrunk the lab! 

Taken from

Researchers have long dreamed of a “lab-on-chip” (LOC) wherein common laboratory procedures have been miniaturized and integrated in various formats using microfluidics—small, interconnected channels resembling electronic circuits on a chip—that provide low-cost assays for “point-of-care” (POC) applications. The cartoon to the right humorously but concisely depicts the general concept of LOC, for which there are virtually an infinite number of specific embodiments made possible by continuing development of many clever fabrication and microfluidic technologies for “shrinking” lab procedures.

Importantly, lab personnel are thus freed-up from slavish, repetitive tasks to instead carry out discovery and development work. Testament to the significance of LOC is evident from the astounding—to me—130,000 items I found in Google Scholar by searching LOC as an exact-word phrase. There is also a LOC Wikipedia site and a journal for LOC specialists named—appropriately—Lab on a Chip, which is already in its 15th year.

What follows is my take on some of the conceptual morphing, so to speak, of LOC-enabled devices that can be packed for portability, driven by remote control, or flown-“in-and-out” for all manner of unconventional, but critically important POC situations needing nucleic acid-based tests.


In archived blogs I’ve previously commented on examples of commercially available portable POC devices that are variations of a lab-in-a-box that can be easily carried in luggage or a back pack. By way of updates, here are some new applications for these systems illustrating wide diversity of use and location:

  • Ubiquitome’s hand-held qPCR system for molecular testing in New Zealand forests aimed at protecting indigenous Kauri trees—the oldest tree species in the world.
  • Amplyus’ miniPCR system for combating Ebola in villages deep in Sierra Leone, Africa.
  • Oxford Nanopore’s thumb-drive size DNA sequencer to identify organisms in the Canadian high Arctic.

Taken from @WhyteLab

RAZOR system by BioFire Defense. Taken from

In the above examples, sample prep workflow is still in need of automation with appropriate LOC technology. However, progress in this regard is being made. One example is the RAZOR system developed by BioFire Defense (pictured below) that features a qPCR lab-in-a-box with ready-to-use, freeze-dried reagent pouches for the detection and identification of pathogens and bio-threat agents. While the progress is impressive, there is still work to be done. A dramatized video for RAZOR usage revealed that much manual manipulation and dexterity with syringes are still required, which suggests the need for complete LOC automation in the future.

Another example of facilitating POC sample prep is the Bento Lab, which is named to be word-play on Bento Box—a complete Japanese lunch in a small, partitioned box-like plate. This portable DNA laboratory created by Bethan Wolfenden and Philipp Boeing at University College London is small enough to fit into a laptop bag, weighs only 6.6 pounds, and can now be preordered for ~$1,000 as a “must have” accessory for so-called “citizen scientists,” some of whom have had early access and have posted their personal Bento Lab stories.

The Bento Lab. Taken from Bento Lab


Biohazard accidents happen, as do bio-threat acts of terrorism. In these seriously scary situations, it may be safer or necessary for first-responders to deploy an Autonomous Vehicle as a self-navigating/driving lab-on-a-robot. Sounds far out, but the first example of a mobile lab-on-a-robot was demonstrated in 2008 by Berg et al., and is pictured below.

Taken from Berg et al. (2008)

This particular lab-on-a-robot is able to autonomously navigate by GPS, acquire an air sample, perform multi-step analysis [i.e. injection, capillary electrophoretic separation, and electrochemical (EC) detection], and send data (electropherogram) to a remote station without exposing an analyst to the testing environment. It’s easy to imagine adapting this kind of robot for carrying out qPCR with EC or fluorescence detection, or nanopore sequencing, for rapidly identifying pathogens.


A logical variation of lab-on-a-robot is to attach the lab part to Unmanned Aerial Systems, (more commonly called drones), thus affording a means for “fly-in, fly-out” applications that require speed to and from a location, or for deployment to otherwise inaccessible locations. This biotech version of drone delivery was initially demonstrated for drone pick-up to aerially transport blood samples from patients to central testing labs, as reported by Amukele et al.

Victor Ugaz. Taken from

The much more difficult task of attaching a lab testing module to a drone has been recently demonstrated by Prof. Victor Ugaz and coworkers at Texas A&M University. Their pioneering 2016 publication titled Lab-on-a-drone: toward pinpoint deployment of smartphone-enabled nucleic acid-based diagnostics for mobile health care is loaded with details, and is a “must read” for technophiles. What follows is my extraction of some unique highlights of that work, as well as information I learned by contacting Prof. Ugaz, who incidentally has received numerous awards and honors.

The basic idea investigated by these researchers was to design a drone-compatible system that could perform what I call “qPCR-on-the-fly.” The drone would require low power consumption and use a smartphone for both fluorescence detection—via its camera—and data analysis via radio transmission of results on-the-fly.

To reduce power consumption by conventional PCR using thermal cycling, which uses power for both heating and cooling during each cycle of amplification, the Texas team invented a radically different approach to achieve isothermal PCR. As depicted below, this new method called convective thermocycling operates isothermally at 95oC and involves movement of reactants upward, away from the heater, through progressively cooler regions and then traveling downward to repeat heating, etc. in a cyclic manner.

Taken from Ugaz & coworkers (2016)

They mimicked POC for an Ebola virus epidemic, which required on-site sample prep and then reverse transcription of viral RNA into cDNA prior to hot start qPCR that is incompatible with convective PCR. The sample prep step was very cleverly achieved using centrifuge adapters that connect to the drone in place of propellers. These centrifuges in turn—pun intended—were fabricated using state-of-the-art 3D printing, and are pictured below.

Taken from Ugaz & coworkers (2016)

The in-flight lab-on-a-drone is pictured below. While in-flight, smartphone-enabled qPCR (as depicted above) takes place during the return trip to home base in order to save time for re-equipping the drone to return to another site, thus increasing overall patient analysis throughput per drone.

Taken from Ugaz & coworkers (2016)

I contacted Prof. Ugaz to ask whether the reverse transcription (RT)-PCR could also be carried out in flight to further automate and increase drone throughput. He replied as follows:

“Many thanks for your interest in our work!  For the purposes of these proof of concept studies, we performed the RT and hot start steps off-device in a conventional thermocycler. However, these steps could straightforwardly be embedded in the portable device.  In principle it should be just a matter of either programming the heater to run through these additional steps (in which case we need to consider the thermal transient between steps, since we are trying to keep the device as simple as possible), or possibly have multiple separate heating zones on the device and have the user physically move the reactor from one to another for each step.  There are multiple possibilities to achieve this that can be explored, and the ‘best’ choice is likely related to the specific application that is envisioned.  But to answer your question, yes this is possible as a relatively straightforward extension of the current design…I have a student who will be working on this during the summer.” 

To my surprise and delight, Prof. Ugaz also informed me of his interest in investigating TriLink’s CleanAmp™ technologies for CleanAmp™ hot start PCR and CleanAmp™ hot start RT-PCR. He said that “[w]e are looking forward to testing this soon and will keep you posted!”

This work by Prof. Ugaz will hopefully lead to encouraging results, and provide a great example of how TriLink CleanAmp™ technologies are enabling both scientific advancement as well as an amazingly interesting, new application such as that in this lab-on-a-drone story.

As always, your comments here are welcomed.

Democratizing diagnostics, clinical NGS, Star Trek Tricorders, and smartphone microscropes … My Takeaways from Molecular Medicine Tri-Conference 2013


Molecular Medicine Tri-Conference 2013 held in San Francisco this past February brought together 3,000 attendees in multi-track programs covering diagnostics, therapeutics, clinical, informatics, and cancer. In addition to Plenary Keynote and Symposium speakers, there were interactive breakout discussion groups, poster sessions, and exhibits. All of this provided a great venue for poster presentations by myself and by Natasha Paul on TriLink’s CleanAmp™ dNTPs and primers, as well as for attending talks and discussions involving nucleic acids. Here are my “takeaways” and recap of the highlights.

“Democratization” of Diagnostics

To play on words, “voting” as indicated by presence or visibility at Tri-Con 2013 indicated that diagnostics continues to undergo so-called “democratization,” i.e. a paradigm shift from centralized testing-service providers to decentralized testing at point-of-care (POC) locations such as hospitals, clinics, residences or virtually anywhere else needed. While I found publications using the term “democratization” for DNA detection as far back as 1993—for PCR and public health in South America—technology for such applications is rapidly expanding. In contrast to centralized testing wherein high-cost/high-throughput systems are operated by skilled users, decentralized POC testing involves low-cost/low-throughput instruments or devices operated by doctors, nurses, technicians or test subjects. This change is being enabled by novel integrated technologies for complete automation and data interpretation by expert-software for “sample-in, answer-out.” Furthermore, and because samples are not shipped, democratized POC/hospital lab diagnostics are faster and cheaper, which is especially important for improving health care in developing countries.

For hospital labs, Dr. Scott C. Johnson with Luminex in a talk entitled Democratization of Molecular Diagnostics: Bringing Simplified Multiplex Real Time PCR Assays to a Hospital Near You described Aries, a dual fixed- or open-assay platform sample-to-answer system currently in development. He emphasized that unlike Cepheid’s GeneXpert®, Aries open-format will allow users to implement non-standard assays of choice.

For so-called “field” situations outside of hospitals, possibly where there is no electricity, radically different systems and/or assays are required, and have been funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Big Ideas and by NIH. The Yager Lab at University of Washington gave a talk entitled Sophisticated Point-of-Care Devices based on 2D Paper Networks that described so-called “demonstration projects” aimed at paper-based fluid-flow (aka “wicking”) that would cost much less than conventional pump-based microfluidics in glass or plastic.

Furthermore, chemical signal amplification using gold nanoparticles is being studied as replacement for antibody- and/or optical-based detection. This and many more innovative projects by the Yager Lab may be found at Microfluidics 2.0.

Additional examples of non-optical detection instead of fluorescence were also evident at Tri-Con 2013. For example, Atlas Genetics presented a poster on use of labeled DNA probes for electrochemical detection, following nuclease-mediated release of the label. This UK-based company claims that its POC testing being developed for diseases such as sexually transmitted infections or neonatal sepsis, and for hospital acquired infections can reduce the time between obtaining a patient sample to treatment from up to 10 days to under 30 minutes. I should note that GenMark Diagnostics, while not at Tri-Con 2013, has already commercialized electrochemical detection of ferrocene-labeled DNA probes (manufactured by TriLink!) as eSENSOR® tests (depicted in the figure below) that are already FDA cleared and available in the US.


Next-Gen Sequencing Goes Clinical

Turning to another theme, an entire session focused on the rhetorical question How Will New Molecular Diagnostic Technologies Affect Clinical Practice?  Prominent among these new technologies was faster, lower cost, next-generation sequencing (NGS). I was particularly interested in comments on the clinical status of NGS by Brian Kelly with Ion Torrent (a Life Technologies company), during a panel discussion in this session. Significant progress is evident in formation of Claritas Genomics as a joint venture between Life Technologies and Boston Children’s Hospital that, according to a January 2013 press release, “will incorporate the expertise, assets and personnel of the hospital’s Genetic Diagnostic Lab, a CLIA-certified center that already offers more than 100 genetic tests, including many specialized diagnostics developed at Boston Children’s. It will leverage Life Technologies’ Ion Proton® Sequencer, a fast, accurate benchtop technology that can readily be scaled for mass application for new tests that the company plans to develop.” Incidentally, Illumina now offers physicians the TruSight Individual Genome Sequencing test, a whole-genome sequencing service using its NGS technology in the CLIA-certified Illumina Clinical Services Laboratory.

For those of you who are not familiar with Ion Torrent’s massively parallelized sequencing, the cartoon below illustrates the essence of how it works. Each T, G, A or C nucleotide triphosphate is serially added to an array of wells that each contain a template-primer-polymerase complex. Incorporation leads to release of hydrogen ions (protons) that are detected by semiconductors analogous to pH meters—hence the name Ion Proton™ System. Similar light-free proton detection is being commercialized by DNA Electronics and includes a very clever USB-like device that plugs into a laptop for powering thermal cycling as well as data acquisition and analysis!


A totally new and very promising non-optical detection method for POC testing was presented by John McDonough with T2 Biosystems. The key technical feature involves PCR wherein amplicons cause clustering of superparamagnetic nanoparticles that in turn change the so-called T2 spin-spin relaxation time for protons in water. The end result is fast detection of analyte in samples with little or no up-front preparation. Evidently T2’s technology has also caught the attention of venture capitalists: a March 28th press release announced that T2 Biosystems raised $40M in financing to support its clinical programs and commercialization of its molecular diagnostic panel for the identification of species-specific Candida fungal infections.

Star Trek Tricorder is Getting Closer

Finally, I’d like to briefly mention a couple of talks given at a Tri-Con session called—irresistibly—A Peek at the Future of POC that featured emerging uses of smartphone technology.

  • Prof. Syed A. Hashsham at Michigan State University spoke on Genetic Diagnostics Using Wireless Systems for Global Health,” as exemplified by his Gene-Z system. This system uses a disposable microfluidic chip-array of wells each with dehydrated primers for loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) and fluorescence detection by SYTO-81, a fluorescent DNA binding dye. Gene-Z is operated using an iPod Touch, which also receives data and carries out automated analysis and reporting via a WiFi interface.
  • Erik Douglas, co-Founder/CEO of CellScope, spoke on CellScope: Smartphone Imaging for Diagnosis using simple optical attachments to convert a standard phone into a clinical-quality instrument. This has been exemplified to date by an otoscope and a dermatoscope for diagnosis of ear and skin conditions, respectively. More information is available at the CellScope website.

Having been inspired by these talks, I did some literature searching and found publications by Prof. Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA whose website is definitely worth visiting. His lab homepage states that they aim to create “photonics based telemedicine technologies toward next generation smart global health systems.” Substituting global with galactic sounds like something Dr. McCoy (“Bones”) would say in Star Trek to describe his medical tricorder, but you’ll see that the work by Prof. Ozcan’s group is definitely not science fiction! Among the cool things you’ll find at his lab website are adapting smartphones for measurement of the cell count of HIV patients in resource limited settings or doing fluorescent microscopy—plus videos, interviews, and major awards given to Prof. Ozcan.


I found that searching “smartphone microscope” in Google Scholar led to a lot of other exciting work in this area. A downloadable PowerPoint presentation entitled “Low-Cost On-Chip Microscope for POC Diagnostics” is well worth looking at to gain further appreciation of the enabling technologies and business cases.

Smartphone Microscope


As usual your comments are welcomed!