Stanford scientists have mixed in microfluidics, electronics, and inkjet technology onto a single ‘lab on a chip’. The new technology, which costs just $0.01 to build, could usher in a medical revolution.

An example of a lab on a chip. Image credits: Cooksey/NIST.

A lab on a chip

Medical technology has advanced tremendously in recent times, but price is a big problem. Modern equipment is, almost without exception, extremely expensive — up to the point where affording it becomes an issue. For instance, due to inferior access to early diagnostics, the survival rate of breast cancer patients is only 40 percent in low-income nations, whereas in the UK for instance, it’s almost double that. Similar figures exist for other dangerous diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV. Access to better diagnostics tools could save countless lives and improve the quality of medical treatment in many parts of the world — and this is where this study kicks in.

“Enabling early detection of diseases is one of the greatest opportunities we have for developing effective treatments,” said Rahim Esfandyarpour, PhD, leader of the study. “Maybe $1 in the U.S. doesn’t count that much, but somewhere in the developing world, it’s a lot of money.”

A lab-on-a-chip (LOC) is a device that integrates one or several laboratory functions on a single chip of only millimeters (up to a few square centimeters) to achieve automation and high-throughput screening. LOCs handle extremely small fluid volumes, but still enough for a medical diagnosis. They provide a very fast analysis time due to short diffusion distances, fast heating, high surface to volume ratios, small heat capacities. They’re also easy to produce and transport due to their size, they’re safe, and they create very little waste compared to alternatives. Of course, they’re also cheap — really cheap. A standalone flow cytometer machine, for example, which is used to sort and count cells, costs $100,000. With this LOC, you can make a hundred of them for a buck.

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Inkjet and microfluidics

The LOC is a two-part system. The first one is basically a clear silicone microfluidic chamber for housing cells and a reusable electronic strip (which further reduces costs). The second one is a regular inkjet printer that prints the electronics using a commercially available conductive nanoparticle ink onto a flexible sheet of polyester. It doesn’t require any specialized personnel to work.

“We designed it to eliminate the need for clean-room facilities and trained personnel to fabricate such a device,” said Esfandyarpour, an electrical engineer by training. One chip can be produced in about 20 minutes, he said.

 

The lab on a chip can be used for a multitude of tests, from sequencing tumor DNA to identify specific mutations to capturing and counting specific cells from a mix, all of which can be done quickly and inexpensively. The importance of this technology shouldn’t be underestimated. Hopefully, it won’t take too long before this moves from the lab into real life hospitals and testing centers. It can make a world of a difference.

“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,” he said.

Journal Reference: Multifunctional, inexpensive, and reusable nanoparticle-printed biochip for cell manipulation and diagnosis, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1621318114

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