One drop of blood will reveal all in "labs on a chip"

At first glance, the disposable chip does not look like an up-and-coming high-tech device, but the little, clear plastic square, developed at the University of Kiel, Germany, is brimming with potential.

If you put a drop of blood on it, it filters out the serum and passes it over a sensor.

"It then gives yes-no answers as to whether certain markers of disease are present," said electrical engineer Sabrina Jahns, who is the primary creator of the disposable chip, which relies on optical technology.

Tiny disposable laboratories will one day be as easy to use as a pregnancy test, which works by testing a woman’s urine for a hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). If it's there, the woman is pregnant.

The hCG is an example of a biomarker. Whether they are cells, hormones or enzymes, biomarkers have been found to be indicators of illness, overall health or pregnancy. That's where the chips are useful: they may not be able to diagnose what's wrong with every sick patient, but they give yes-no answers on the presence fo particular diseases.

Although the labs on a chip in Kiel are not capable of detecting every common biomarker yet, they do allow Jahns to detect levels of substances known as thrombin, CD40 ligand, EGF and biotin. Thrombin, for example, is a protein important for blood clotting.

"If the concentration [of thrombin] in the blood is high, it is an indicator that the patient is at higher risk of developing a blood clot," she explains.

Her method of taking blood counts has since been patented by the researchers.

The reason for miniaturization is straightforward - to save money. Labs on a chip could significantly reduce the costs of analysing blood tests.

That's because blood samples would not need to be shipped to a specialized laboratory. How this will play out has yet to be determined. The scientists are only in the beginning stages of research.

Scepticism often accompanies technologies that tote reliance on only a few droplets of blood. Theranos, a promising US-based blood diagnostics company, made similar claims regarding its Edison system. In 2015 this technology was called into question.

Discrepancies have raised doubts as to whether such tests are accurate without the help of traditional equipment.

To date, the Kiel chip can identify seven different biomarkers, but the design goal is to attain 100 biomarkers in a few years, said Martina Gerken of Kiel university. The project was recently given a grant by the state of Schleswig-Holstein to advance development.

There are several institutes where researchers are also looking at how to miniaturize laboratory procedures.

"With the lab on a chip, researchers are not just trying to miniaturize what a typical laboratory does, but also combine it into an integrated system, analogous to what happens in micro-electronics," comments Detlev Belder from Leipzig University.

What will make micro-labs economically attractive is when they become cheap enough to use just once and throw away.

In the long run, patients might be able to skip doctor’s visits entirely.

"The dream is that eventually someone could simply place a single droplet of blood on a cellphone, for example, and then know everything," Belder said.

For Belder, who is a professor of analytic chemistry, the scientific challenge of the future is not just shrinking a single laboratory device, but getting dozens of them onto a single, cheap chip.

He concedes that we are a long way from getting there, but it's "not inconceivable" that such a device will be developed one day.

Last update: Sun, 21/08/2016 - 12:59

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