New optical chip antibody test from URMC scientist can detect COVID-19 antibody

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Using a chip that is essentially powered by optical circuitry certainly seems like something out of science-fiction, especially when you consider this technology is the size of a grain of rice, and can detect COVID-19 antibodes.

Ben Miller, who’s brief title is: “Dean’s Professor of Dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, but also a faculty member in Biochemistry and Biophysics, Biomedical Engineering Material, Science and Optics.”

That must be quite a business card.

With all of that expertise combined, Miller was able to use funding from the CARES Act — more precisely this is a “$1.7 million project is funded by the US Department of Defense Manufacturing Technology Program using CARES Act funds through a contract with AIM Photonics” — to create a new piece of technology.

This chip, which lacks a name other than “how is this even possible,” uses light to determine if a drop of blood has the COVID antibody, as well at least one more, though Miller is working on making the chip detect eight different cell types.

“We worked with aim photonics on developing these chips,” Miller said. “It’s sort of like making computer chips that run off of light rather than using electricity… Light moves at the speed of light. It’s very fast. And it’s also a low temperature.”

That last point is key in this process. In more traditional computing, giant servers are often very large, because they need to be big enough and have enough cooling to handle the temperatures of computing. Because this kind of computing put out such little heat, it can be extremely small.

But how does this actually work? Miller starts by comparing to another kind of high speed, high efficiency, and high data-rate optics technology most of us are familiar with: fiber optics. It’s essentially a very long piece of glass in a tube form.

Miller takes it from here:

“Now let’s imagine that you take that fiber optic glass thread and you shrink it down. And so it’s just a couple hundred nanometers across, and that’s maybe a 10th of the diameter of a human hair, but it will still transmit light along its length.

“You can actually pattern those on the Silicon chip… It’s actually called a wave guide because what it’s doing is it’s guiding light down the length of this thing. Some of the light actually sort of leaks out as it’s going along,” he said

“An analogy that I make is if you take a paper towel tube, and you hold it under a faucet and the water’s running as the water runs, obviously your hands didn’t get wet because the water kind of soaks through the cardboard, but actually the water going through that to also feel some of the warmth of your hand,” he said.

Miller says that this silicone chip processes how much “leaked light” comes through once it passes through the wave guide. So when a chip like this is programmed to detect specific antibodies, one can calculate whether or a blood sample has the antibody by measuring the leaked light.

The test itself is well within the normal testing measurements of weight of a COVID antibody; the device can detect in ten nanograms per milliliter, whereas a COVID antibody measures at 50 micrograms per milliliter.

As for its accuracy, Miller says the early data is reading that the test has 100% specificity, and and about 80% sensitivity.

“Specificity is a question of how many true negatives we identified, and sensitivity is how many true positives we identify,” Miller said.

Miller also says that even though a vaccine may be on the way, this antibody test can be critical in determining how long antibodies last. So even though Miller is looking at six months to a year before commercial release, it will still be relevant in that time.

This technology isn’t just an academic exercise. Even beyond its assistance in fighting the pandemic, this technology has even more staggering implications in the medical field, that further how this chip feels like science fiction.

“We are working on this a project that I’ve got in collaboration with two faculty in, in biomedical engineering,” he said. “There’s a whole area of research called, ‘organ on a chip,’ which is basically trying to mimic human organ systems in a chip format. And so what we can do is we can take these little Silicon sensors, and we can interface those to an organ on a chip. So they basically report on what that organ on a chip is doing,” he said.

In the future, this technology can also be used to take a sample from a patient, and subject that sample to different drugs and therapies. Doctors can use that information to determine which medicine is best, instead of having a patient take a full dose first.

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