New technology aims to reduce cost, make blood tests easier
Blood tests are rarely fun, and for individuals suffering from a disease, the discomfort may be compounded. But a new technology, called "Lab-on-a-Chip," aims to make the process more bearable.
"Lab-on-a-Chip" is a field of research with promising applications, said Mehdi Ghodbane, a Rutgers alumnus. Ghodbane was lead researcher on a team at Rutgers that created one such chip to test for diseases.
Normal assays, or tests, performed in a laboratory require large amounts of blood or other bodily fluids, while also costing large amounts of money, he said. These tests are used in a wide range of applications, from research to checking for diseases in blood.
A lab-on-a-chip minimizes this procedure, requiring both less blood and less money, Ghodbane said.
“A test tube holds (a lot) of liquid. Instead we do it with a micro-channel, which is smaller than the width of a human hair,” he said. “You use less samples, it reduces the cost.”
These are the main advantages of labs-on-chips, he said. Some chips are also portable or usable in areas with no power or other clinical facilities, such as in developing nations.
But Ghodbane’s chip does require a clinic to operate. While the tests themselves are done with the same reduced cost and volume, the other equipment found in a lab is still needed.
“We use amino acids to measure any proteins to diagnose various diseases,” he said. “The drawbacks are it’s very expensive … and the amount of sample volume to perform the analysis (is considerable).”
This sort of research is performed all across the University in the various labs and clinics, he said.
The apparently large amount of blood used for a test is important, said Joshua Roshal, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.
Blood tests are usually performed for multiple indicators, and each one needs to be tested independently of the others, Roshal said.
“Each vial of blood is discarded after it has been tested for a certain blood marker,” he said. “Thus, in order to test for multiple markers, you need multiple (vials) of blood.”
If a test needs to be performed again, extra blood may be taken as a precaution, said Neil Patel, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore.
For an ordinary patient, it would seem like a lot of blood, Patel said.
His chip requires “a tenth of the volume” and another fraction of the cost, Ghodbane said. The chip is able to test six different amino acids at the same time, a further advantage.
Ghodbane’s chips specifically can be used to test for certain pathogens, including Human Immunodeficiency Virus and the bug that causes Lyme Disease.
The applications for this technology are considerable, he said. Certain tests cannot be performed on animal models due to the amount of blood or other fluid required.
At the same time, Ghodbane believes it would be unethical or difficult to test potential cures or treatments on humans for diseases such as Parkinson’s, or issues like spinal cord injuries.
Drawing enough fluid from a lab rat for testing might normally result in killing the rat accidentally.
This no longer needs to be an issue, since the chips only use a “pinprick” of blood, he said.
The technology has a few hurdles left to overcome, Ghodbane said. Trying to create the micro-channels and ensuring that they work properly is the main obstacle in creating new chips.
“We have these really small channels and somehow you have to get things into and out of there,” he said. “You have to manipulate the fluids into and out of there (but) these interfaces have not yet been perfected.”
Once these channels can be created simply, the chip technology should advance rapidly.
“That’s where most progress will be made in this field, because once that’s done the barriers to this are coming down,” he said.
The other aspect to maximizing the use of this chip is in mass production.
While the chip used in the published paper was created with a replica molding method — a cheaper way to produce individual units — commercial use would probably use injection molding.
“Injection molding is cheap per unit but it’s expensive to make molds so in research we don’t do it that way,” he said. “We do it the other way where we can change our design.”
Injection molding, if used with the right equipment, can become an automated process and allow any user to create the chip instead of only highly trained individuals, he said.
Mass production in developing nations might not be feasible yet though. The advanced technology required in the chips may preclude certain users from creating them, he said.
As improvements continue, reducing the advanced parts might be something that is looked into.
Still, Ghodbane said the cost benefits are clear.
“The technology has the potential to decrease the amount of cost used by every hospital in the world,” he said.