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Mobile testing for Ebola gains renewed urgency as outbreak grows

Matt Hamblen | Aug. 14, 2014
PositiveID has a handheld prototype device that could be ready for use within two years.

PostiveID has developed a prototype device, the Firefly DX, to conduct quick tests for infectious diseases, including Ebola. The mini-laptop device can be opened to insert testing cartridges inside that include a small hole in the center for taking blood samples. (Photo: PositiveID)

"We call it a laboratory in the palm of your hand," Probst said. "It will do the whole testing process that you do in a lab to detect some type of organism in 10 to 15 minutes, compared to several hours in a lab."

Training to run the tests should be a simple process for airport personnel or field workers, Probst said. "We've taken the guesswork out of it and the person running the test doesn't need to be a programmer or even a medical person." A small blood sample can be taken with a finger prick, while a swab can be used to swab the nose or the mouth of a patient.

On the technology side, PositiveID has designed the system to allow different test programs to be encoded on an RFID chip inside the one-use cartridges. The reagents and other fluids needed to conduct the test are also inside the cartridge, and those test results are transmitted to the laptop device optically.

Once transmitted to the larger Firefly device, the data is further interpreted and can be sent to a smartphone or other device via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, with the data eventually stored in a cloud-based system easily accessible by multiple parties. The data can also be read on an LED display.

Firefly runs on a proprietary, open-source operating system built with C, C++ and HTML tools, Probst said. A separate battery charger can re-charge the device's Lithium-Ion battery.

Much of the research on Firefly actually began a decade ago and cost $35 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Probst said. A team led by Probst first built an 800-pound, closet-sized machine called the M-Band, which is used to test air quality and to detect and identify airborne viruses, toxins and bacteria within two hours. PostiveID has partnered with Boeing to license M-Band to customers; it is currently being tested by the U.S. Department of Defense in South Korea, Probst said.

Using the know-how gained from the M-Band project, Probst said PositiveID raised $2 million from a classified government program that he wouldn't name plus $1.5 million raised internally to begin downsizing M-Band into the Firefly prototype. That process began three years ago, with the current version of the prototype substantially readied more than a year ago.

"We've talked with several government agencies and there's a very large need for a device such as this, so I fully anticipate government funding in place this year," Probst said. Eventually, the final device will be even smaller than the prototype, he predicted, since keeping it small and highly mobile is a key driver for the project. A ruggedized device for Defense Department use is also contemplated.


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