Bioengineers from the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Rome, Tor Vergata recently patented a technology for rapid medical diagnostic tests using inspiration from natural processes mirrored in nature and humans.

The ultimate goal for the Plaxco Group, headed by Kevin W. Plaxco, senior author and professor at UCSB’s Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is to come up with inexpensive devices, similar to blood glucose monitoring devices used by diabetes patients that test for many diseases such as STDs, allergies and autoimmune disorders.

While observing bacteria and other organisms, the researchers found that the millions of proteins on the surface of cells have ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches that detect various molecules and warn the organism of certain target antibodies. These switches are even more valuable because they work in whole blood, which is why these researchers can use them to develop a method for quicker test results.

Francesco Ricci, a visiting professor from the University of Rome, Tor Vergata and one of the co-authors of the study, added that the new technology has broad applications.

“The nice thing about this technology that we came up with is that it’s general, so it can be applied to any kind of analysis as long as it requires the detection of antibodies,” Ricci said.

In theory, this device would also be able to detect certain types of cancers through antibody analysis. With this discovery of ‘molecular nanoswitches,’ doctors will be able to provide patients with on-the-spot answers and decrease the spread of infectious diseases.

Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, a post-doctoral scholar and a co-first author of the study, offered his input on how this discovery will help health care in general.

“One word: accessibility! Because the test will be easy-to-use, rapid and inexpensive, testing will become readily available everywhere,” Vallée-Bélisle said in an email.

Although it may take some time to solidify this method, the team of bioengineers is working very hard to bring inexpensive devices to the market and close the gap between diagnosis and treatment.