You blow your nose in a tissue and the tissue indicates you've got the flu. Sounds like science fiction? Stuff like this always does. But German researchers are designing a "lab in a hankie."
It's a common sight: You blow your nose with a tissue and the tissue turns green.
But what if the green in your tissue could be used to help diagnose what you're suffering from?
German researchers are working on this very idea: a handkerchief that can tell the difference between a common cold and influenza.
And they're calling it the "lab in a hankie."
How it works
The lab in a hankie works a bit like a pregnancy test – the kind you can buy at the pharmacy - only it's a little more complicated.
Within the structure of the handkerchief, antibody-like molecules are bound to a polymer. If several of these molecules bind to a virus, the polymer automatically changes its structure. Or, as the researchers put it, the polymer "collapses."
The collapse generates a signal, such as a reaction in the material of the tissue, to produce a color.
"Though preferably not red," says Frank Bier, as this could be mistaken for blood.
Frank Bier is project director and researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT in Potsdam. The IBMT is one of 14 research institutes and industry partners involved in the "lab in a hankie" project.
The polymer and molecules can be spun into a thread and made into textiles.
"We thought about a lot of things, plasters, cleaning cloths - but in the end we stuck with the handkerchief," Bier says. "It is a good name for the project - even though it is about much more than a handkerchief."
Diagnostics of the future
The researchers say their work is leading to "a new generation in clinical diagnostics."
That's despite the fact that the last generation in clinical diagnostics - the so-called "lab on a chip" – has yet to conquer the market.
A "lab on a chip" is a diagnostic device, just a few square centimeters in size that can handle tiny amounts of fluid. They are developed to measure compounds in the blood, and other liquids, to detect markers, for instance, that show a patient is suffering from a heart attack.
The chips can be read and interpreted by another small machine, giving doctors and patients access to the results in just a few minutes.
But the "lab in a hankie" promises to go even further.
"We no longer need the [second] machine," says Bier.
Detecting more than flu
Using a material structure such as that of a handkerchief will allow the technology to be used in other settings too – so it could also be used to detect germs on work surfaces or even surgical instruments at hospitals.
"These days, cleaning is done more or less blindly," says Bier. "You wipe some disinfectant over a surface and it's considered to be clean. But with our tissues, you'll know whether it really is clean."
The researchers say they are developing materials that will detect flu viruses, Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria, which causes diarrhea. They also hope to include MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant pathogen which is responsible for many deaths in hospitals.
Results expected next year
The German ministry for education and research has funded the project until the end of 2014.
"By then, we hope to show how the whole thing works. We are already very close," Bier says.
But while he's optimistic, Bier is keen to point out that the germ-detecting handkerchief is still some way away: "You won't be able to buy it at the pharmacy tomorrow," he says.