New lab working on 30-second tests for diseases like COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s

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“Little Sensor Lab”

The University of Arizona is developing a new testing method that could be a game-changer for detecting diseases like COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s. Judith Su, an assistant professor from the University of Arizona’s biomedical engineering department, received a $1.8 million research award from the National Institutes of Health.

Su’s lab specializes in detecting biomarkers, short for biological markers, for medical diagnostics. Biomarkers are objective, measurable characteristics of the body that can be found in biological fluids.

The Process

Sensors in the lab follow the same principle as acoustic whispering galleries; the most famous whispering gallery can be found underneath St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

“If you stand on one end [of the gallery] and your friend stands on the other, you can hear what the other person is saying even though you’re like 100 ft. away because sound is traveling along the edges of that wall.”

Instead of sound going around a wall, the lab uses reflective light circulating in a donut-shaped device to identify biomarkers. When the light hits the biomarkers it will slow down slightly, creating a marker that the researchers can observe.

This light will conduct 240,000 revolutions within 40 nanoseconds (0.0013 of a second), and that is what gives the sensor “really fast response times,” according to Su. “We can get responses in under 30 seconds, which is really beneficial for infectious disease applications when time is really critical.”


Su hopes that they will be able to create a non-invasive test sensitive enough to pick up particles in the breath as opposed to more time-consuming blood drawing and DNA tests. The ultimate goal, Su said, was for the test to have the convenience to be taken at the place of patient care through cellphone integration.

Judith Su, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, UA

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