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