Early detection is the key to surviving serious disease. But many parts of the world, especially developing countries, are financially challenged when it comes to developing early diagnostic tools. Personnel also need training to conduct such diagnostics, and in facilities that cost money to staff and operate.
Because of poor access to early diagnostics, in some low-income nations the survival rate of breast cancer patients is only 40%, half the rate of such patients in developed nations. Other lethal diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, also have high incidence and poor patient outcomes in developing countries.
Improved access to cheaper diagnostics could help address these challenges. Most importantly, it could possibly save lives.
"Enabling early detection of diseases is one of the greatest opportunities we have for developing effective treatments,” says Rahim Esfandyarpour, an engineering associate at the Stanford Technology Center.
So, Esfandyarpour put his money where his mouth: a whole penny's worth.
He and a team of researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine developed a diagnostic "lab-on-a-chip" (LOC) that can be made using an ordinary inkjet printer.
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, says Ron Davis, director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center.
LOC TECHNOLOGY COULD ACCELERATE BASIC AND APPLIED RESEARCH
In the biochip manufacturing arena, inkjet printing is attractive because it's relatively inexpensive and delivers small droplets with reproducible volumes, analyst Andrew McWilliams explains
in BCC Research's report
on emerging inkjet technology.
"Inkjet printing's also flexible in terms of spot size, number of different fluids and grid layout. Because of the non-contact nature of inkjet printing, this technology is suitable for printing materials onto the substrate without damage to the print head or substrates, including porous or brittle substrates. As an emerging technology, it has huge potential for biochip applications in basic research, drug discovery, disease detection and diagnostics. The research conducted at Stanford's Medical School certainly demonstrates that."
A TWO-PART SYSTEM
The LOC, which combines microfluidics, electronics and inkjet printing technology, is a two-part system: A clear silicone microfluidic chamber for housing cells sits on top of a reusable electronic strip. The second part involves imprinting a circuit design onto a sheet of flexible plastic using nanoparticle ink and inkjet printer. That's it. Healthcare workers can accomplish the task without the need for advanced training.
One chip can be produced in about 20 minutes—at the cost of a penny.
“We designed it to eliminate the need for clean-room facilities and trained personnel to fabricate such a device,” says Esfandyarpour.
The reusable and all-in-one, LOC technology can analyze cells for research and clinical applications. Users can analyze different cell types without using fluorescent or magnetic labels, which typically are required to track cells. Instead, when an electric potential is applied across the inkjet-printed strip, cells loaded into the microfluidic chamber get pulled in different directions depending on their “polarizability." The label-less method improves precision and cuts lengthy labeling processes.
Because the system involves no contact, the strips can be reused. The method's low-cost advantage allows budget-restricted researchers the freedom to experiment, as well.
Inexpensive sequencing technology allows clinicians to sequence tumor DNA to identify specific mutations and recommend personalized treatment plans. In the same way, the lab on a chip has the potential to diagnose cancer early by detecting tumor cells that circulate in the bloodstream.
“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,” Davis says.
The technology has the potential to not only advance health care, but also to accelerate basic and applied research. It would allow scientists and clinicians to potentially analyze more cells in shorter time periods, manipulate stem cells to achieve efficient gene transfer and develop cost-effective ways to diagnose diseases.
The team hopes the chip will create a transformation in how people use instruments in the lab.
“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,” says Esfandyarpour.