How did we combine design and synthetic biology?

Design was a key concept in the evolution of our project. We wanted to come up with a beautiful and useful device that would be easy to use. Jeanne Talonneau, who majored in design studies, joined our team to help on that matter. A great amount of work was done and we have managed to end up with a final product ready to be put on the market. Here are some details about the choices that have led to the design of our device.

What brought a designer to meet with biologists?

Jeanne is a good example: “I was interested in biology and studied sciences when I was young. In college, I decided to study applied arts. But I wanted to satisfy my curiosity with sciences, and therefore worked on biology-oriented design. I wrote a memoir about “the loss of control on the living”. To go further, I wanted to work on a design project including bacteria. That’s why I joined the INSA Lyon team.”

What does design bring to synthetic biology?

Design makes you think about the end-user first. Scientists try to solve specific problems, but designers tend to think at a larger scale, they also think about the environment in which the product may be used. Both approaches associate to bring a new and better response. Synthetic Biology is still a very young domain, centered on large-scale industry. A vast majority of the public never heard of it. Design could be a fabulous communication tool to get people’s acceptance on using synthetic biology based products

What are the motivations to get involved in an iGEM project?
E. chromi, developed by the 2009 iGEM Cambridge team, is an inspiring design project. They managed to combine design and synthetic biology in a very inventive way.

The idea was to make a collaborative project. Within our team, scientists shared ideas and knowledge about synthetic biology while Jeanne, our designer, brought insight from a different point of view. Most French laboratories do not take design into account, although it could be a very useful tool to communicate and come up with new solutions. The work of Neri Oxman from MIT and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg from Cambridge was a great source of inspiration to understand how design and synthetic biology could be integrated together in a project. iGEM is a very unique opportunity to make applied design.

How did our self-test model come to life?

First, we made a list of all the technical specifications we wanted for our device to become a functional prototype. Two formal hypothesis emerged from this work. A lot of sketches were made to explore both options. Then, the whole team voted to choose the best option. The circular design seemed to be better suited for the end-user, so we kept it as the final design. A 3D-printed model was made and evolved progressively with the team’s remarks.

The very first sketches we drew. The two main shape ideas we explored were defined at this moment.
What was the method to work on design?

To begin with, a lot of work needed to be done to analyze what had already been done by others. This phase was useful to find inspiration and avoid making something that already existed. Although this phase can take quite some time, we were able to figure out something rather quickly, thanks to the very precise technical specifications we had laid down in the beginning. The second phase consisted of making lots of sketches. It was the most important part of the work. Numerous ideas were put on paper, they evolved little by little, until a good idea emerged. It was a very interesting part, because we could see the evolution of the ideas. Then sketches were vectorized to produce more formal designs.

These designs were discussed to choose the best ones. Once the choice was made, we went on with 3D-printing prototypes. This phase was tricky and we had to adjust the design a lot, because the 3D visualization allowed us to see what was working and what was not… So details were corrected, the functionality of the device was improved and changed. We used a lot of 3D printing to be able to get our hands on the device and see what needed to be modified. So this was really a collaborative work.

How to design something intuitive and user-friendly?

A good product is intuitive and easy to use. But designing something simple is far from being easy. If the device is intuitive enough people should be able to use it without reading the instructions: it’s the main goal of each functional device. For our project, the difficulty comes from the precise protocol that the user must follow. The product must be easy to use by the end-user. Putting color on the surfaces that are going to be manipulated is a way to guide the user. That is why we decided to put color on the zones that should the user should get in direct contact with and leave the rest in white.

What are the selling features of our device?

It’s a very simple device, contrary to what’s currently available. It’s cheap, small, and easy to use. But mainly it’s not aggressive, not like the vast majority of medical products. The little needle hidden in the device does not refer to a syringe, so the object is less “threatening” than what’s on the market.

What benefits came out of this experience with design?

This was our first experience dealing with an applied design. Our project was complex and with a really applied purpose. It was extremely pleasant to work together. Each universe, design and biology, were bound together and communication easily set in. Everyone acquired new knowledge thanks to that. Sadly, it is rare to have a product designer working in parallel to the development of a new product. This experience was extremely beneficial to build our iGEM project more efficiently. Design should be an integrated practice!

Integrated Design as a rupture tool

First, we had to define a list of specifications we wanted for our device. Building something new and really innovative is a difficult task, especially when you start from scratch. As iGEMers but also engineers we started this design work by investigating the self-test market. The results showed us that currently available tests were not intuitive, expensive, and with poor design… we thought that their complexity was reluctant for potential users. We also found out through our human practices actions that potential users tend to be stressed out and uncomfortable when a STD test needs to be done. So we wanted to simplify the manipulations to avoid unnecessary discomfort and potential misuses. The most important remark is that no self-test on the market are suited for the detection of multiple STI.

The current solutions for self-testing are not very developed yet, apart from pregnancy tests, only one self-test is sold in France. We analysed it to explore their limitations.
The existing HIV test is quite complex, with eight elements to be manipulated by the user.
The buffer cap is on one piece and need to be put elsewhere, this is not very easy to understand at a first glance.
The price is consequent, it is sold at around 35 $. Results take 15 minutes to show, which may be a source of stress.
The general aspect of the test is quite cold and unfriendly, dramatizing the situation.
It is polystyrene based, so not eco-friendly.
For the special case of HIV, detection is effective only three months after infection.

Based on these observations, we established our own design requirements. The test would need to:

Be able to detect multiple STI at a time;
Produce quick and relevant results;
Be intuitive;
Contain the least amount of pieces;
Be bio-sourced and eco-friendly;
Be able to detect diseases at an early stage.

Taking all these pieces of information into account, we started the design process itself. After a phase of design with sketches and first shape choices, the chosen shape was modelized in 3D printing. A prototype was printed and tested in the lab. Making liquids migrate correctly on the paper band inside the prototype was not an easy task. Five trials were needed to achieve good performance. Then the final shape was developed, printed and tested as well. We pursued theses development cycles until we were satisfied with the results.

3D-printing our device

Our device is composed of two major functionals parts. The biological detection material is put on a paper strip. This paper strip alone would be difficult to handle. The casing is here to act as an intuitive user-interface. Thus handling is facilitated. We have chosen 3D printing to make the casing. To better understand this technique and its benefits here is an interview with Damien Jacques, who is an expert in 3D printing.

Our device is printed with PLA (polylactic acid), which is a biosourced and fully biodegradable plastic. It was important for us to integrate an eco-friendly approach in the making of the device. The detection system is paper-based, so fully biodegradable as well.

New ideas brought by our device

As our final test was designed to detect several diseases at a time, we needed a shape that could allow an unambiguous reading of the results. Making a linear device, with all the diseases having a result really close to one another was our first option.

But we quickly thought it was not a good solution, because it could lead to misinterpretations. So the round shape, with all diseases detected on different pads turned out to be far better. Moreover, the round shape is less appalling, because it does not evoke a medical device.

The design itself includes two major functional parts, colored surfaces on the picture. The user can hold the device in one hand, press a finger against the bottom of the device to trigger a little needle hidden in the device. Then the user puts the droplet of blood from his finger on the central round of the device. Of course, one single droplet is not enough to have a correct fluid migration into the device. Therefore, a small bottle of buffer is provided, for the user to fill up the central reservoir in order to dilute the sample. Then the migration starts and the results are available within fifteen minutes. Each tested disease will have its name on a label above each detection pad, to ensure correct interpretation of the results. The shape has been designed to ensure optimal grip of the hand on the device. We think the end-user may be able to make the test with a quick look at the instructions. This device is here to solve a huge public health concern, STIs. As shown in the human practices part (, it is not an easy question. This subject invades the privacy of each individual, so it’s sensitive. To this day, self-tests are still rare on the market. And those currently available are often only sold in specialized structures. Suggesting a device able of detecting several diseases at once and at an early stage is a rupture innovation on the market.

Our goal is to sell the self-test at a low price. The materials used are cheap, simply paper and PLA. So the device could be really less expensive. The shelf life is also a determining factor. With DNA we can hope to achieve a whole year of conservation time. Of course a lot of development work would still be required to build a fully functional and reliable device. But with the results we got, we really think it could be a very good investment to pursue the development of such a test.

The final model or our device, printed at a 3.5:1 scale for demonstration purposes.
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