Canadian researchers have developed a medical device the size of a toaster that can perform the same genetic tests as a fully equipped laboratory in a fraction of the time.
The key to the device — developed at the University of Alberta — is a small plastic chip that can make several determinations: from whether a patient is resistant to cancer drugs or have an infection like malaria, writes Bryan Alary of Phys.Org. The chip also can determine whether specific infectious diseases are in a herd of cattle. The technology is licensed by Aquila Diagnostic Systems, based in Edmonton, Alberta.
“We’re basically replacing millions of dollars of equipment that would be in a conventional, consolidated lab with something that costs pennies to produce and is field portable so you can take it where needed,” said Jason Acker, an associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Alberta.
The device uses polymerase chain reaction technology to amplify and detect targeted sequences of DNA, but in a miniaturized form that fits on a chip the size of two postage stamps. The chip contains 20 gel posts — each the size of a pinhead — that are designed to identify sequences of DNA within a single drop of blood.
Each of the gel posts is manufactured to conduct its own genetic test. Therefore, clinicians can use the device to determine not only that patients have malaria, but also the type of malaria, and whether their DNA makes them resistant to certain antimalarial drugs. It takes about one hour for a chip to analyze the blood.
Linda Pilarski, an experimental oncologist with the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, developed the device. As an oncologist, Pilarski is interested in technology that has pharmacogenomic testing capabilities, such as determining whether breast cancer patients are genetically disposed to resist certain drugs.
“With most cancers you want to treat the patient with the most effective therapeutic as possible,” she says. “That’s what this does: it really enables personalized medicine. It will be able to test every patient at the right time, right in their doctor’s office.”
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.