It’s rare in your journalism career that you encounter an innovation that is likely to alter a part of your everyday life, but that’s exactly what digital Microfluidics could achieve in hospitals and surgeries in the future.

What is revolutionary is the ability to do testing there and then when you need it; so you can get an instant diagnosis

Inside Sharp Labs Ben Hadwen is leading the research of the technology.

Microfluidics is defined as the precise control and manipulation of fluids on the sub-mm length scale, but when coupled with microelectronics and applied to blood analysis, a unique discovey has been made.

An innovative device has been created to not only improve, but speed up the analysis of human blood, with doctors able to receive results of blood tests within minutes using a mini laboratory that fits in the palm of the hand.

A faster blood test

Next generation Microfluidics has been developed by Sharp Labs Europe in partnership with Southampton University with the hope of implementing their device in the not too distant future. Ben Hadwen, a research supervisor in the Health and Energy Technology Group at Sharp Labs Europe is the man charged with leading the day-to-day research and development, and he is hopeful the technology will have a lasting impact.

“Imagine this. At the moment, when you go to the doctors, he thinks you are ill and he wants you to have a blood test,” Hadwen explains. “But he has to send the sample to the hospital and then you have to wait two or three days to get the results. Wouldn’t it be great if he could do that test during your appointment in the surgery and get an instant result of several complicated things.”

The technology could also be used for other liquids, such as urine.

The aim is for all doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to use a mini-laboratory around 4-5 cm in length. Using cutting-edge micro-electronics in LCDs developed by Sharp, the Oxford technicians have helped create a mobile device that can test blood in a matter of minutes. Sharp brings the ability to mass produce this technology in very high volumes – using existing facilities. Hadwen explains, “It’s about being able to work with tiny micro-litre volumes of fluid, so a test can be done very quickly and very efficiently using a very small amount of precious substances – like your own blood.

“How it works is we place a droplet of blood onto the substrate and electronics underneath are splitting it up into smaller sub-droplets, performing a series of chemical reactions on the blood. With simple Microfluidic chips we can input fluid via pods and then using complicated electronics and fluidics can create controlled chemical reactions to do difficult bio-chemical diagnostic tests, all on this little chip in a matter of minutes to give a result to a trained health professional such as a doctor or a nurse.”

Multiple testing and other applications

But the technology isn’t necessarily exclusively for blood analysis. The aim is that the small device can be utilised with urine, for detecting infections, identifying common viruses and even for drug discovery.

Hadwen showcases the blood testing device that fits in the palm of your hand.

Furthermore, crucially it can handle multiple tests at any given time. “A key feature of the technology is that we will be able to do many tests on just one droplet of blood, being able to test for many things,” Hadwen explains. “Where currently, that would have to be done in hospital on a rather large machine that takes several hours. With our technology it would be possible to do it in the Doctor’s surgery during the time of your appointment, producing a very accurate picture of what might be wrong with you, so the GP can you treat you there and then.”

Professor Hywel Morgan has been working with Microfluidics for the past two decades, but he partnered with Sharp on this project nearly 12 months ago. He admits the idea of portable blood analysis is not a new concept, but before now, no technology has been sophisticated enough to handle the move to a small mobile device.

We think in the future it could transform and revolutionise healthcare. Maybe in 5-10 years you will see this technology at the doctors

The pipettes used to test the breakthrough blood testing device.

“What we have developed is methods of doing the chemistry and the chemical biology and testing the results on one portable device. One of the bottlenecks previously in transporting diagnostics onto a mobile platform is the ability to be able to handle the complicated scale of testing. In order to be able to take that technology out of the lab and onto a portable device you need to think about how you might manipulate small amounts of liquid. Thinking outside the box you can use electric fields to move droplets of liquid – this project is an extension of that concept.”

The future for Microfluidics

Morgan believes the multi-functionality of the project will be a major benefit in the assessment of patients with long term illnesses such as cancer. “What is revolutionary is the ability to do testing there and then when you need it; so you can get an instant diagnosis. For people with long-term diseases who need to be monitored all the time, this technology could be really useful in terms of real time patient and health management. The potential has been limited for a while due to the lack of programmability. What Sharp has helped do is make each individual device completely programmable.”

A snapshot of the frontline of Microfluidics at Sharp Labs.

Digital Microfluidics is the first mainstream breakthrough to be developed by Sharp’s new Health and Energy group at Sharp Labs Europe. There is a genuine optimism that this could be seen in Doctor’s surgeries in the relatively near future.

Who knows, digital Microfluids may well be a term we all become a lot more familiar with in the years to come. As Hadwen believes, “We think in the future it could transform and revolutionise healthcare. Maybe in 5-10 years you will see this technology at the doctors. Our hope is, that one day, this technology will help to save lives.”

It’s ours too…

Portraits shot exclusively for Humans Invent by Richard Grassie. For more of his work go to www.richardgrassie.com.


 

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  • Huw

    I believe many microfluidic applications have already been developed and do work. The problem is getting the investors to recognise this and spin it off.

    • Anonymous

      That’s a good point Huw. Microfluidics has been around for a while, but what is revolutionary about this next generation microfluidics is the application of digital technology (ie discrete droplets, controlled and sensed by microelectronics embedded onto a glass substrate – using the same transistor technology found in LCD screens), allowing a doctor or nurse to do detailed analysis of blood or another liquid instantly.

      • Studog

        Looks amazing. The speed is what’s important here, not the physics I don’t think. Science is nothing without application – this is a brilliant application.

      • Jsheats

        Putting microelectronics into the microfluidics substrate is not hard (lots of engineering work, perhaps, but not hard). What is hard is getting the whole system to actually measure what you want, reproducibly and with known accuracy. Chemical sensing with those qualities is hard even with benchtop instruments; this is where most sensor projects fail ( and at HP I saw many of them). Biological systems are even much harder than synthetic chemicals since there are so many complex interactions going on.

        It’s wonderful stuff, for sure, but a lot of devils in the details.

        • Anonymous

          Thanks. We put your points to Ben. His response as follows: ‘Our hope and aim is that the high capability of the platform will be key in helping us to overcome the not inconsiderable difficulties of accurate bio-sensing. A key feature of our technology is that by using TFT electronics, we can achieve fine electronic control over the full extent of the fluidic chip. This facilitates unique methods of controlling and sensing many droplets independently and simultaneously which is a capability that few microfluidic systems have.’

  • Richard

    With this morning’s news in the world of cycling, I think a device like this could clean up doping in sport forever.

  • Jsheats

    I am getting really, really tired of seeing “revolutionary breakthrough” headlines for stories which describe ideas as old as Methuselah and with no more than incremental advances. The technologists may have made some very useful progress, but it is buried in hype about “what if your doctor could…” etc. etc. Concepts like this have been under development in many labs for decades (which is how long it takes to make something this complex happen). What caves do people live in if they don’t know this?

    Sorry for the ranting but the technology is too important to be given such poor journalistic treatment.

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