Chip to make instant home test for illness possible

July 25th, 2008 - 3:14 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, July 25 (IANS) A new tool “lab-on-a-chip” would make a new generation of instant home tests possible for illnesses, food contaminants and toxic gases in the near future. These portable, efficient tools are at the lab stage, where researchers alone know how to fabricate them from scratch.

Michigan University (M-U) engineers are now working on a 16-piece lab-on-a-chip kit that brings micro-fluidic devices to the masses.

The kit cuts costs and the time it takes to make such a device from days to minutes, said M-U’s Mark Burns, who developed it with graduate Minsoung Rhee.

“In a lot of fields, there can be significant scientific advances made using micro-fluidic devices and I think that has been hindered because it does take some degree of skill and equipment to make these devices,” Burns said. “This new system is almost like Lego blocks. You don’t need any fabrication skills to put them together.”

A lab-on-a-chip integrates multiple lab functions onto one chip just millimetres or centimetres in size. It is usually made of nano-scale pumps, chambers and channels etched into glass or metal.

These micro-fluidic devices that operate with drops of liquid about the size of the period at the end of this sentence allow researchers to conduct quick, efficient experiments.

They can be engineered to mimic the human body more closely than the Petri dish does. They’re useful in growing and testing cells, among other applications.

Burns’ system offers six-by-six mm blocks etched with different arrangements of grooves researchers can use to make a custom device by sticking them to a piece of glass.

Block designs include inlets, straight channels, Ts, Ys, pitchforks, crosses, 90-degree curves, chambers, connectors (imprinted with a block M for Michigan), zigzags, cell culture beds and various valves. The blocks can be used more than once.

Burns even grew E coli in one of these modular dishes to demonstrate the viability of his system.

He believes micro-fluidics will go the way of computers, smaller and more personal as technology advances.

Burns said: “You’ll be analysing chicken to see if it has salmonella. You’ll be analysing yourself to see if you have influenza or analysing the air to see if it has noxious elements in it.”

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