(CN) – Stanford University researchers say they have developed a new, reusable medical diagnostics tool can produce a “lab on a chip” for just a penny that could be a boon for doctors treating patients in developing nations.
In a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers detail their tool that could help detect HIV, malaria and other lethal diseases in patients from developing nations.
Poor access to medical diagnostic tools contributes to a breast cancer survival rate in low-income nations that is half that of patients in developed nations, with financial barriers hindering efforts to improve such poor health outcomes.
“Enabling early detection of diseases is one of the greatest opportunities we have for developing effective treatments,” lead author Rahim Esfandyarpour said.
The team highlights the example of a flow cytometer machine – a tool that can sort and count cells – which costs $100,000, not including operational costs.
“Maybe $1 in the United States doesn’t count that much, but somewhere in the developing world it’s a lot of money,” Esfandyarpour said.
The team’s “lab on a chip” combines microfluidics, electronics and inkjet-printing technology into a two-part system: the first part is a clear silicone microfluidic chamber for housing cells and a reusable electronic strip, while the second part is a regular inkjet printer that can be used to print the electronic strip onto a flexible sheet of polyester.
“We designed it to eliminate the need for clean-room facilities and trained personnel to fabricate such a device,” Esfandyarpour said, adding that one chip can be produced in about 20 minutes.
The tool allows medical personnel to analyze different cell types without using magnetic or fluorescent labels, which are typically required to track cells. Instead, the chip separates cells based on their intrinsic electronic properties.
When an electric potential is applied across the inkjet-printed strip, cells in the microfluidic chamber get pulled in different directions based on their “polarizability” in a process called dielectrophoresis – a label-free method to analyze cells that enhances precision and eliminates lengthy labeling processes.
The tool can handle small-volume samples for a variety of analyses, at the cost of about a penny per chip.
“The genome project has changed the way an awful lot of medicine is done, and we want to continue that with all sorts of other technology that are just really inexpensive and accessible,” senior author Ron Davis said.
The team says the technology can also help accelerate basic and applied research by allowing scientists and clinicians to potentially analyze cells in shorter time periods.
“I’m pretty sure it will open a window for researchers because it makes life much easier for them – just print it and use it,” Esfandyarpour said.