Biohackers are developing an open-source $300 Ninja qPCR for real-time COVID-19 testing

Marianna Limas
Published in
5 min readJul 22, 2020


Shingo Hisakawa’s NinjaPCR. © Hisashin

A group of biohackers, led by Shingo Hisakawa from Tokyo, Japan, recently joined Just One Giant Lab (JOGL), a platform where users collaborate to solve problems such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Their goal: to convert the NinjaPCR open-source thermal cycler into a real-time DNA amplifier, to test for COVID-19.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique in which scientists can take a specific sequence of DNA and amplify it to a large enough amount to study it in detail. With the RT-PCR test, it is possible to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a DNA sample taken from a patient.

To learn about Ninja qPCR, we spoke with Shingo Hisakawa:

What is the big problem you’re trying to solve?

We want to make COVID-19 testing cheaper and more accessible. We’re making a $300 open-source, real-time PCR (qPCR) that can be used for COVID-19 testing.

How did your project get started?

Mariko (my partner) and I are patient hackers who love solving big problems that look impossible at first, but are actually possible. We have made human-powered aircraft that flew a mile over a lake. We also developed an augmented reality satellite app, SpaceStationAR, that helps you watch satellites with the naked eye, such as the ISS (International Space Station).

We also developed a more precise temperature-controlled open-source thermal cycler (PCR machine) called NinjaPCR. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we found that qPCR, which is a costly technique to diagnose COVID-19, was being widely used. We wanted to develop a cheaper technique, and this was one of those “looks impossible, but possible” challenges to solve (upgrade our PCR into qPCR). That was what inspired us to start the Ninja qPCR project.

How did you become interested in this topic?

Originally, we were software engineers and weekend hardware hackers, and we were not interested in biology. But in 2010, we launched an app, SpaceStationAR, that was used by the daughter of Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki to watch her mom enter space on the shuttle Discovery as part of mission STS-131. One of the shuttle missions had to do with Japanese biology education and that’s how I met some biologists who wanted to make PCR more popular in schools. As we learned biology from them, we got more interested in this field, and we believed we had lots to contribute!

Can you talk about NinjaPCR, NinjaLAMP, Ninja qPCR, why are they important, what are the possible real-world applications?

PCR/LAMP/qPCR are methods for RNA/DNA testing. Immunochromatography and antibody testing are cheaper and easier but cannot replace PCR/LAMP/qPCR because they cannot detect small amounts of RNA/DNA.

In the case of COVID-19, they cannot be used for patients in the early stages of the disease. It’s not just COVID-19, PCR/LAMP/qPCR can detect almost any kind of RNA/DNA if you use the right reagents. It can detect diseases like malaria, dengue fever, ebola and HIV, food allergens like wheat, peanuts, and it’s used for paternity and ancestry tests.

There are so many real-world applications. Moreover, nowadays DNA sequences are shared openly, and anyone can buy their own DNA sequencer for $1000. With our $50 NinjaLAMP and $300 Ninja qPCR, we believe custom DNA testing will become as common as a pregnancy test. Affordable PCR/LAMP/qPCR devices have the ability to help billions of people all over the world!

What is the coolest thing about your project?

NinjaLAMP was developed in just one week by a collaboration with Indonesian biologist Nur Akbar Arofatullah, founder of LifePatch, the first biohackerspace in Asia. Now, he is trying to manufacture it at local factories to solve the problems of his country by themselves. Everything is shared under GPLv3 license (which means that any usage must also be open-source), and all efforts will be shared with the public. I think it’s cool.

Ninja qPCR is harder than NinjaLAMP and we needed help from other specialists. Usually, we only announce our products when they are ready, but this time we decided to announce our products during the development phase. Now, we have connected with so many specialists all over the world (see the map below).

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Tokyo is increasing again and that’s bad news for us because we’re raising 2 kids. But we will make several versions of POC (proof of concepts) and get optical results using synthesized parts of the COVID-19 virus sequence within a few months, thanks to their help (Joséphine Galipon at Keio University, Japan is designing 1000bp COVID-19 positive controls using most countries’ official primers).

What has been the most difficult/challenging part of the journey?

I started this project only with my wife. We are both software/hardware hackers and the biggest problem was how to get help from specialists like biologists, optical engineers, qPCR users, manufacturers and field testers. Luckily we are already collaborating with all of them simply because we are an open community. You can join us at

What successes have you had since joining the OpenCovid19 Initiative on JOGL?

People noticed and got interested in our project. Some of them kindly donated their commercial qPCR machines, so we could learn how it works.

What are your next steps?

First, we will release DIY models for urgent needs. Next, we will manufacture product models with FDA license, and keep improving them.

What’s a public misconception that you wish we could correct as a community?

Currently, qPCR is too expensive (usually $20,000 or more) and its applications are totally restricted by its high price. Affordable qPCR is needed in small hospitals, classrooms and houses.

Also, we need to provide enough quantity of qPCR machines for license holders at a low cost. It takes at least 3 years to acquire a license to become a healthcare worker in Japan who is allowed to collect DNA samples from patients for diagnosis. Establishment of new medical licenses for test site workers that can be acquired in a shorter term is another example of preparation we can do for the second wave of the pandemic.

If you are interested in contributing to the project, or just want to learn more, you can send a message to Shingo or join the project at: