For the 795,000 Americans each year who suffer a stroke, a rapid response diagnostic test may soon be at hand.
Scientists at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health (BIAH) have created a system that can diagnose whether a stroke has taken place in less than 10 minutes using just a drop of blood—far quicker than the current means of testing, which relies on CT scans, full blood tests, and returns results in up to four hours. With every minute counting for sufferers of the condition, which costs the economy $34 billion annually, this new device could prove life changing.
Modern medicine’s trend towards small size, simplicity, and speed is evident in this new diagnostic. “Three quarters of stroke patients suffer from ischemic stroke—a blockage of a blood vessel in the brain,” explains the study’s lead author, Roy Cohen. “In those cases, time is of the essence, because there is a good drug available, but for a successful outcome it has to be given within three or four hours after the onset of symptoms. By the time someone identifies the symptoms, gets to the hospital, and sits in the emergency room you don’t have much time to obtain the full benefit of this drug.”
Enabling quicker diagnosis could reduce the number of people who suffer lasting damage from ischemic strokes, he says—an important consideration given that they are one of the leading causes of long-term disability in the U.S.
Strokes, which kill an American once every four minutes, can also cause problems such as excessive tiredness and vision problems in the long term for those who survive. BIAH’s technology will ultimately be able to detect biomarkers present in the blood when a stroke occurs by attaching enzymes to nanoparticles, which can convert those detected molecules into light.
Researchers focused on neuron-specific enolase (NSE), a biomarker found in more concentrated amounts in the blood of stroke victims, and measured the light they produced in order to diagnose whether this had taken place.
While recent developments in micro-medicine have seen the development of finger prick tests for everything from HIV to cancer, there is a brewing sense of distrust over the accuracy they provide. Following the recent Theranos controversy, in which the Silicon Valley lab’s promises to diagnose a myriad health issues within a few hours with a drop of blood was found to have greatly over exaggerated its capabilities, skepticism around the accuracy of these rapid diagnostic tests is rife.
A new study also suggests that the contents of each individual droplet can vary widely, further calling into question whether this new mode of analysis is really the healthcare miracle it’s been touted as. Research found that it was only when five or more pricks’ worth had been expressed and combined that accurate results could be achieved.
For BIAH’s stroke test, at least, demonstration of the proof of principle suggests that the technology could be employed to test further conditions in humans and animals, from heart disease to traumatic brain injuries. With Cohen currently analyzing the latter in mixed martial artists to “promising” results, this may be the device to prove critics wrong.
“This system could be tailored to detect multiple biomarkers,” says Alex Travis, the paper’s co-author and Associate Professor of Reproductive Biology at BIAH. “That’s the strength of the technique. You could assemble a microfluidic card based on this technology that could detect ten biomarkers in different wells, and the readout would be the same for each one: light.”
The team have plans to develop the stroke-detection technique for clinical testing with the help of a private company, with the test ultimately being made available in hospitals.