Waiting. It’s frustrating. And when you’re feeling sick, it’s nerve-wracking. Waiting days for an opening in your doctor’s schedule. Sitting in the waiting room for an hour once appointment day comes. Shivering in the exam room for what seems like an eternity while waiting your turn. Anticipating for days your test results from the lab to find out what’s wrong with you.

What if you could skip all that and get accurate diagnostic tests done in just a few minutes in the comfort of your own home? Two University of Houston alumni have made this a very real possibility that will be available in the near future. Their vision is to empower health care providers and consumers by bringing a medical-testing laboratory to their smartphones.

These are the Innovations UH Builds

Under the mentorship of chemical and biomolecular engineering Professor Richard Willson, Bala Raja (Ph.D. ’14) and Andrew Paterson (Ph.D. ’16) co-founded Luminostics, an early-stage startup developing smartphone-based rapid tests. They co-invented a technology with Willson to change the way medical testing is done by enabling consumers to monitor their health with rapid, accurate and cost-effective diagnostic tests with just their smartphone and an inexpensive adaptor.

Co-founders (L) Andrew Paterson & Bala Raja.

“We worked off the premise that if we have rapid, at-home diagnostic tests, like the pregnancy test, then there should be a way to develop such tests for other things,” Raja said. “If the pregnancy test introduced a type of technology that completely revolutionized the way women find out whether or not they’re pregnant—then why has this test not revolutionized all other medical testing?”

The landscape of health devices currently available for purchase by consumers, he says, falls under two extremes. On the one end of the spectrum, there is everything from a basic thermometer and blood pressure cuffs to Fitbits and other wearables with biosensing capabilities, measuring surface-level vital signs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are devices, such as glucose meters, to help patients monitor known chronic conditions like diabetes. Raja says there’s a vast swath in between these two extremes that is mostly untapped. Outside of the pregnancy test, there are not many devices readily available and affordable for consumers to prognose, screen or diagnose on a biological level, most of which needs to be measured from inside the body—be it from blood, saliva or urine. That is what he and Paterson want to solve with their eventual suite of products—to address the gap between surface-level vitals and chronic illness monitoring devices.

Underneath the Hood

“If you look at the smartphone-based tests that people are trying to develop, they almost all have these pretty complex attachments that are often bigger than the phone itself, with these boxes that contain a lot of expensive, cumbersome hardware,” Paterson said. “If you want to reach the full potential of smartphone diagnostics, though, you need something much simpler and cheaper to produce, and that’s what makes us different.”

Microscopic image of glow-in-the-dark nanoparticles, called nanophosphors.

The key to the duo’s diagnostic platform is that it uses glow-in-the-dark nanoparticles, called nanophosphors, that can be activated by light, so they are able to use the camera and flash native to the cell phone to analyze these tests. This eliminates the need for most of the hardware that other smartphone-based devices require.

“With these unique, proprietary light-emitting nanoparticles, we don’t need all that equipment,” Paterson said. “We can essentially just make a black box to block out background light with a simple lens in it to capture the image emitted after activating the phosphors with the flash of the camera. So, it can be made at a very low cost and gives us sensitivity comparable to these other light-based methods.”

Raja points out that while a variety of rapid tests are available for professional use, they have limitations that make many of them medically unreliable, such as high rates of false negatives due to their limited sensitivity, as well as only providing qualitative yes-and-no answers that can be difficult to interpret for a non-medical professional.

“For many non-life-threatening things, you’re still required to go to the doctor and take time off from work, and that’s where we think we can make a huge difference,” Raja said. “The currently available rapid-testing technologies don’t exist in a way that makes it inexpensive and easy enough for consumers. That’s the difference our nanophosphor technology brings, enabling that level of accuracy, using just an average smartphone’s optics.”

Paterson adds, “We’ve engineered our phosphors to specifically signal the presence of a disease. It can offer better performance than current tests, with earlier detection of disease, higher sensitivity and fewer false negatives.”

Diagnostics To-Go

Ultimately useful for both doctors and consumers, the product will have three main components—a disposable disease-specific test cartridge with the nanoparticles embedded in it, a reusable smartphone adaptor designed much like a phone case and a mobile app. Depending on what’s being tested, the user would just add a saliva, blood or urine sample to the disposable test cartridge, slide it into position and press a button on the app to have it analyzed and display the test results in less than 15 minutes. From there, the decision can be made whether to go seek medical treatment, such as in cases of strep throat or the flu, or just stock up on cough drops and tissues and go to work if no infection is found.

“There are so many things you can do with this technology, but we needed to pick one to focus on initially to develop our product,” Paterson said. “We wanted to choose something that could fulfill an unmet medical need, as well as have a good market for consumers at home and health care professionals in the clinic. After a lot of research and brainstorming, we decided on a screening test for chlamydia, which is a huge public health issue.”

While Chlamydia is the most frequently reported bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the U.S., with the latest reports showing 1,441,789 cases being reported to the Centers for Disease Control, it’s estimated that 2.86 million infections actually occur annually, with associated costs exceeding $2.4 billion. Luminostics’ discreet, at-home screening test could help narrow that gap and increase access to treatment.

To propel their efforts, they received some disease-specific funding that helped them advance their technology. A year ago, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine took notice of the team’s technology and awarded Luminostics a six-month subcontract under the umbrella of a larger National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to develop an analytically and clinically de-risked prototype of their test. On the heels of that, they were awarded an NIH Phase I Small Business Innovation Research Award to continue with their efforts to refine their prototype of this point-of-care test. Paterson says narrowing the focus to Chlamydia not only provided them with the necessary funds to further develop their technology, but also provided good validation that they’re on the right track in the pursuit of commercialization.

California Dreaming

The duo’s most recent milestone was an invitation to become part of Y Combinator, the world’s most elite start-up accelerator. In addition to receiving funding, Luminostics moved to Silicon Valley to join a handful of other startups to intensively work on strengthening the company and refining their pitch for investors, culminating in an opportunity to present their company to a carefully selected, invitation-only audience.

“Y Combinator is famous for having incubated some of the biggest companies now, like Airbnb and Dropbox, so they’re known to have a knack for picking out startups that will grow big and invest in them really early,” Raja said. “Their acceptance rate is competitive. We were up against about 6,500 other companies that applied and less than 100 of us got in. This is a huge move for us, and we’re really excited at the prospect of what the future holds.”