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Phone-Based Lupus Home Test Kit in Development

Chandra Mohan and Richard Willson

Chandra Mohan, left, and Richard Willson hold their prototype smartphone test for lupus kidney inflammation. (University of Houston)

26 October 2017. A home test kit using smartphone imaging is being created by biomedical engineers to detect kidney inflammation caused by lupus, an autoimmune disorder. The research for this system is funded by a four-year, $1.4 million award from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, part of National Institutes of Health, to a team led by biomedical engineering faculty at University of Houston.

Systemic lupus erythematosus — the full name for the condition — is an autoimmune disease, where the immune system is tricked into attacking healthy tissue and cells, in this case leading to inflammation in the joints, skin, and other organs including heart, lungs, and kidneys. The disorder is more common in women than men, mainly affecting individuals between the ages of 10 and 50, as well as people of African, Hispanic, and Asian heritage. Lupus Foundation of America estimates more than 1.5 million Americans have the disease.

Lupus can be difficult to diagnose and treat because many symptoms are highly variable, affecting people in different ways, with any two cases rarely identical. A team led by Houston engineering professors Richard Willson and Chandra Mohan aims to make diagnosing the disease easier with a simple test of urine samples, much like home pregnancy tests. The test in this case will detect biomarkers for kidney nephritis or flares, indicating inflammation often associated with lupus. Finding evidence of kidney inflammation today requires taking a tissue sample, an invasive surgical procedure.

The researchers borrow the basic detection process behind home pregnancy tests for their lupus test kit. Lateral flow assays will be used to detect kidney inflammation biomarkers in urine samples, which in home pregnancy tests detect the presence of characteristic hormones in urine that disperse through a paper medium. The researchers say biomarkers found in urine are better indicators of lupus than today’s conventional lab targets.

To indicate the presence biomarkers for inflammation, the team is using fluorescing nanoscale particles of strontium aluminate that Willson and his lab colleagues found provides much more sensitive detection of biomarkers, particularly over time. In that earlier study, the authors tested a prototype device also using lateral flow assays.

In the new project, the researchers plan to devise a test stick placed into a urine sample, with antibodies that react to the target proteins. Like a home pregnancy test, if these proteins are in the sample, they will collect in a line in the test paper and glow when exposed to the fluorescing nanoparticles in the paper. The greater the amount of target proteins in the sample, the brighter the glow given off by the nanoparticles.

To reduce errors in reporting, the team is developing an inexpensive attachment for smartphones to hold the test stick while the phone’s camera takes photos of it. The researchers say smartphone photos can accurately record the magnitude of the glow given off by the nanoparticles, and software in an accompanying app can provide results on the spot. After developing the test sticks and smartphone system, the team plans to test its device with samples from a broad range of lupus patients.

The researchers expect the device will make it possible to test for kidney inflammation associated with lupus in doctors’ offices and even at home. In addition, the system will provide a way of measuring the degree of kidney inflammation, as well as monitor its treatment over time. “The current technology,” says Willson in a university statement, “is basically a yes/no system and not quite sensitive or quantitative enough.”

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