Lateral flow tests also known as Lateral Flow Immunochromatographic Assays are simple devices intended to detect the presence (or absence) of a target analyte in sample (matrix) without the need for specialized and costly equipment, though many lab based applications exist that are supported by reading equipment. Typically, these tests are used for medical diagnostics either for home testing, point of care testing, or laboratory use. A widely spread and well known application is the home pregnancy test.
The technology is based on a series of capillary beds, such as pieces of porous paper or sintered polymer. Each of these elements has the capacity to transport fluid (e.g., urine) spontaneously. The first element (the sample pad) acts as a sponge and holds an excess of sample fluid. Once soaked, the fluid migrates to the second element (conjugate pad) in which the manufacturer has stored the so-called conjugate, a dried format of bio-active particles (see below) in a salt-sugar matrix that contains everything to guarantee an optimized chemical reaction between the target molecule (e.g., an antigen) and its chemical partner (e.g., antibody) that has been immobilized on the particle's surface. While the sample fluid dissolves the salt-sugar matrix, it also dissolves the particles and in one combined transport action the sample and conjugate mix while flowing through the porous structure. In this way, the analyte binds to the particles while migrating further through the third capillary bed. This material has one or more areas (often called stripes) where a third molecule has been immobilized by the manufacturer. By the time the sample-conjugate mix reaches these strips, analyte has been bound on the particle and the third 'capture' molecule binds the complex. After a while, when more and more fluid has passed the stripes, particles accumulate and the stripe-area changes color. Typically there are at least two stripes: one (the control) that captures any particle and thereby shows that reaction conditions and technology worked fine, the second contains a specific capture molecule and only captures those particles onto which an analyte molecule has been immobilized. After passing these reaction zones the fluid enters the final porous material, the wick, that simply acts as a waste container. Lateral Flow Tests can operate as either competitive or sandwich assays.