Chemistry and Biochemistry

Three Student Researchers Develop Revolutionary New Rapid Diagnostic Test

Posted: Apr 29, 2020

Three BYU Chemistry students Annie Armitstead, Lara Grether, and Kealani Creech have developed a new type of diagnostic test called the “seLFI” whose versatility and inexpensive production costs have potentially monumental effects on the future of medical chemistry.

The seLFI, also called the Simple Empowering Lateral Flow Immunoassay, is a new type of rapid diagnostic test developed by these student researchers with Dr. Watt. “We decided on that name because the product was simple enough that it could be taken to small team operations, whether that was someone like us in a lab where you don’t have a lot of funding but you want to try to figure out antibody pairings, or do tests with LFIs, or whether that be in low resource settings,” said Grether.

This project began years ago with a friendship between Dr. Watt and Annie Armitstead’s father Dr. Kelly Pitts when they were both undergraduate chemistry students at BYU. When Armitstead came to BYU and enrolled in Dr. Watt’s biochemistry class, Dr. Watt and Dr. Pitts knew there would never be a better time to work together. Dr. Pitts works with diagnostic tests so they set out to find a way to create an LFI test that was more cost effective in order to make it available not only to a wider audience, but to increase further research opportunities as well.

Armitstead and Grether were the original researchers for the project, with Creech joining more recently. The tests that Dr. Pitts used most often were called LFI tests, or lateral flow immunoassays. These tests were expensive and complicated to produce, and were largely unavailable to those with a lower income. When Grether joined the team after joining Dr. Watt’s lab, she and Armitstead began with the goal to create an LFI test without including sample pads, conjugate pads, or nitrocellulose and absorbance pads in order to reduce the cost. At the time, they were told this goal was impossible.

“I remember hearing ‘this is never gonna work. You guys won’t be able to do blood samples. You just can’t do that without a sample pad. You can’t do that,’ I thought, ‘Okay, but I’m going to try. And we’re going to get it to a point where we can,” said Grether. They began their research by trying to print the necessary antibodies for the tests onto nitro-cellulose paper but found that the specialty paper jammed in a regular printer. Without a way to print the antibodies on the paper mechanically, Armitstead and Grether set out to find a more effective way to transfer these antibodies onto paper. In the end, they came up with the idea to manually draw the lines of antibodies on the paper with pens. To do this, they emptied ink out of pens, cleaned them extensively and added an antibody solution to the pens. After attempting the process with ballpoint pens, felt tip pens and markers, they finally found success in the form of roller ball pens. The thin antibody ink didn’t leak through this specific type of pen.

Once the antibodies were successfully drawn onto paper, Grether and Armitstead began the testing. Instead of continuing with the difficult-to-find nitro-cellulose paper, the two found that by using the specialty roller-ball pens they had created, the seLFI tests could be printed onto regular printer paper they chemically modified with potassium periodate.

“One treatment of potassium periodate can make about 1.400 tests,” said Kealani Creech. “So one treatment, plus 100 µL of antibodies was able to make roughly 1,400 seLFI tests.” The ability to make this number of tests from a single sheet of printer paper is a truly revolutionary discovery, lowering the cost of production compared to regular LFI tests by nearly 90%.

It was about this time that Creech joined the research team, after learning about the research opportunity in Dr. Watt’s biochemistry class. In order to test their new product, the three researchers began with using a buffer. However, when Creech joined the team, she expanded their research to test human subjects as well, starting with fetal bovine serum, and eventually moving onto urine samples.

While it was originally used to detect the hCG protein in order to test for pregnancy, it can be broadened to test for any substance. Dr. Watt hopes to one day expand the test so that individuals can take daily seLFI tests in order to ensure their bodies are functioning correctly. These simple LFI tests would allow diabetics, pregnant women, and anyone afflicted with any sort of medical issue to take these daily tests to constantly monitor their levels of insulin, iron, or virtually any other substance.

Additionally, these tests are as rapid as the more expensive LFI tests, taking one and a half to two minutes to show results, so they could allow for faster diagnostics with viruses and help medical professionals more quickly diagnose individuals afflicted with dangerous diseases like the coronavirus that is currently so worrisome.

As for the future, these researchers have high hopes for the seLFI product. Humanitarian efforts could be greatly impacted by the seLFI tests, giving individuals in low-income settings the ability to have more comprehensive and inexpensive diagnostic equipment. The affordability of the product would not only allow for this, but also for more advanced research. “If this was available to labs everywhere,” said Armitstead, “you could have hundreds of thousands of labs working on the same time, instead of only giving it to people who have money. So this lowers that barrier of development to people like us who don’t have much funding.”

“I’m impatient, is the thing,” says Creech. “I’m so excited. I just keep thinking, ‘I just want everyone to have this right now!’”

Written by: Emma Parnell

Photos courtesy of Lara Grether, Annie Armitstead, and Kealani Creech