Scientists have developed a low-cost reusable "lab on a chip" - using an ordinary inkjet printer - that can detect lethal diseases like cancer and could potentially enhance diagnostic capabilities around the world, especially in developing countries.
At a production cost of as little as one cent per chip, the new technology could usher in a medical diagnostics revolution like the kind brought on by low-cost genome sequencing, said Ron Davis, professor at the Stanford University in the US.
Inexpensive sequencing technology allows clinicians to sequence tumour DNA to identify specific mutations and recommend personalised treatment plans.
In the same way, the lab on a chip has the potential to diagnose cancer early by detecting tumour cells that circulate in the bloodstream.
Due to inferior access to diagnostics, the survival rate of breast cancer patients is only 40 percent in low-income nations-half the rate of such patients in developed nations.
Other lethal diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, also have high incidence and bad patient outcomes in developing countries.
Better access to cheap diagnostics could help turn this around, researchers said.
"Enabling early detection of diseases is one of the greatest opportunities we have for developing effective treatments," said Rahim Esfandyarpour, research associate at Stanford.
A combination of microfluidics, electronics and inkjet printing technology, the lab on a chip is a two-part system.
The first is a clear silicone microfluidic chamber for housing cells and a reusable electronic strip.
The second part is a regular inkjet printer that can be used to print the electronic strip onto a flexible sheet of polyester using commercially available conductive nanoparticle ink.
"We designed it to eliminate the need for clean-room facilities and trained personnel to fabricate such a device," said Esfandyarpour.
One chip can be produced in about 20 minutes, he said. Designed as a multifunctional platform, one of its applications is that it allows users to analyse different cell types without using fluorescent or magnetic labels that are typically required to track cells.
Instead, the chip separates cells based on their intrinsic electrical properties.
When an electric potential is applied across the inkjet-printed strip, cells loaded into the microfluidic chamber get pulled in different directions. This label-free method to analyse cells greatly improves precision and cuts lengthy labelling processes.
The tool is designed to handle small-volume samples for a variety of assays. The researchers showed the device can help capture single cells from a mix, isolate rare cells and count cells based on cell types.
The study was published in the journal PNAS.