Canadian researchers have created a tiny, portable device they say can do the same work as a larger blood testing lab, in a fraction of the time and cost.

Their newly developed “lab on chip” device can quickly perform blood tests and determine whether people living in areas without access to standard laboratories are at risk for measles and rubella.

The University of Toronto researchers have cheekily named their device “Mr. Box,” or MR (measles, rubella) Box. They say it can do on-the-spot tests to check whether people have developed antibodies against measles and rubella -- two diseases that kill or injure hundreds of thousands in developing countries every year.

The device relies on a technology called digital microfluidics. A pinprick drop of blood is placed onto a specially created microchip and then placed into the device, which then moves the blood drop around the chip using electrostatic pulses.

As the blood drop moves, the device looks for the presence of antibodies to measles or rubella, which would indicate whether a person has developed an immunity to the disease, either through previous infection or vaccination.

The researchers recently published test results of Mr. Box in the journal Science Translational Medicine and report that the device is not only simple and inexpensive, it offers results much faster than a traditional lab. 

The team tested the device by travelling to the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, which had recently undergone a measles and rubella immunization campaign.

The team tested small blood samples from children and adults to see whether they had developed immunity, and then sent the samples to Kenya’s national laboratory in Nairobi to compare the results.

The low-cost device matched the international laboratory-standard reference tests of the Kenyan Medical Research Institute.

“It was 86 per cent for measles and 84 per cent for rubella…these patients wouldn’t even have those results, because they are in a refugee camp,” said Julian Lamanna, a PhD candidate in chemistry who was part of the research team.

The accuracy of the device will continue to improvewhich could allow quick blood tests to be performed in the field, say researchers.

“Right now, in refugee camps, all tests have to be done several hundred kilometres away… if you can do the test right next to the patient, you can get the information rapidly,”Darius Rackusa post-doctoral researcher in chemistry, told CTV News.

Rackus hopes tht “miniaturizing” disease testing would one day allow testing to be done at airports or other points of entry, to provide fast and inexpensive disease surveillance.

“Just like computer used to take up entire rooms, yet everyone has one in their pocket now, maybe one day, all our lab tests can be done on something that kits in your pocket,” he said.

What’s more, the technology could be adapted to test for other infections, says Lamanna.

“We have a very flexible platform,” he said. “So we are alsoworking on tests for malaria and Zika, which are slightly different in their biochemistry. But you can imagine this flexible architecture being used for testing for a whole variety of different diseases.”

This will allow experts to rapidly mobilize to head off outbreaks before they happen, or be there with boots on the ground after the outbreak starts.

“We simply don’t have it today. This could lead us to that place,” said Aaron Wheeler of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. 

The researchers are planning to make their platform design “open source,” so that others can help improve on it.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip