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Intellectual Property Focus: Scott Philips

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One yardstick for measuring the quality of a University is by measuring its beneficial impacts on society. The Eberly College of Science is justifiably proud of the impacts our students have made on Pennsylvania, the nation, and the world. Often overlooked, however, are the impacts of our college through the transfer of our research from the lab bench into economic and societal benefits. Each issue of the Science Journal will highlight a faculty member whose recent intellectual property has real potential to benefit society.

Scott PhilipsScott Phillips, assistant professor and Martarano Career Development Professor of Chemistry, has developed elegant and deceptively simple tests for analytes that are inexpensive to produce, require no refrigeration, and provide reliable quantitative data using no electronic readers or specialized equipment. A simple watch will suffice. Consequently, Phillips’s technology could be used, for example, to develop diagnostic tests for water quality, health-related point-of-care tests, and tests for food-borne bacterial contamination in rural areas around the world. Such diagnostic tests would meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ASSURED criteria for diagnostic tests: affordable, sensitive, specific, user-friendly, robust and rapid, equipment-free, and deliverable.

—Andrew Stephenson, associate dean for research and graduate education

Speed and simplicity are two words we don’t usually associate with tests, particularly effective diagnostic tests used for human health. But what if diagnostic tests could be both simple, meaning easy to perform, without multiple steps to complete the measurement; and quick, as in the ability to measure a chemical species quickly and effectively?

The goal of point-of-care diagnostic tests—examples include personal glucose meters, pregnancy tests, and breathalyzer tests—is that the person performing the test can easily complete the process while obtaining the most accurate data. Phillips and his team have developed many new strategies to advance point-of-care diagnostic tests, including modifying existing tests for new purposes.

The team repurposed a personal glucose meter so that it could measure relevant concentrations of enzyme biomarkers. Without changing the glucose meter or the strips that go into it, Phillips and his team were able to merely change the reagents and assay strategy of the meter to repurpose it. They tested the system to measure a marker of liver function with success. For patients going through treatments that could damage their liver, this simple test could be a life changer.

Paper testing deviceThis paper testing device, designed by Phillips, measures the levels of lead and mercury in water.  The levels are measured by counting the time between when the green appears on the left and the red appears on the right. Credit: Phillips lab

But repurposing the glucose meter isn’t even their most promising strategy. They are researching using paper as a diagnostic platform. By embedding new reagents into paper, Phillips’s team is able to perform very sensitive tests that detect trace quantities of analytes with ease. And the paper diagnostic test is easy to perform, too—Phillips and his team have set up the test so that the user merely has to add a sample to the paper and the reagents do the work and provide a definitive readout. The paper can even quantify how much of an analyte is in a sample: the user can either count the number of colored regions that appear on the paper, or time how long it takes the affected part of the paper to change color relative to a region of the paper not subject to the sample. The user does not need any specialized electronic devices to perform these tests or analyze the results.

Phillips said the goal of this research is “to make tests exceedingly simple, but still quantitative and high performance.” The idea of simpler, more effective diagnostic tests that anyone can perform and analyze could revolutionize healthcare testing. Not only are the tests Phillips and his team are coming up with simple, effective, and easy to perform, but they also have the ability to be mass produced and more readily available than electronic testing devices.