Stanford builds lab on a chip for a penny

Researchers say the medical revolution will be akin to low-cost genome sequencing.
By Bernie Monegain
10:51 AM
Stanford lab on chip

Stanford University School of Medicine researchers are introducing a “lab on a chip” they created with the aid of an inkjet printer.

Costing as little as 1 cent per chip to produce, the new technology could spark a medical diagnostics revolution – similar to the transformation created by low-cost genome sequencing, according to Stanford Genome Technology Center Director Ron Davis, professor of biochemistry and genetics.

The researchers published the work online Feb. 6 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Davis is the senior author. The lead author is Rahim Esfandyarpour, an engineering research associate at the genome center.

As the researchers see it, the inexpensive lab-on-a-chip technology has the potential to enhance diagnostic capabilities around the world, especially in developing countries. Due to inferior access to early diagnostics, the survival rate of breast cancer patients is only 40 percent in low-income nations – half the rate of cancer patients in developed nations, the researchers point out.

Other lethal diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, also have high incidence and bad patient outcomes in developing countries. Better access to cheap diagnostics could help turn this around, especially as most such equipment costs thousands of dollars, they say.

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

Esfandyarpour describes how it works:

A combination of microfluidics, electronics and inkjet printing technology, the lab on a chip is a two-part system. The first is a clear silicone microfluidic chamber for housing cells and a reusable electronic strip. The second part is a regular inkjet printer that can be used to print the electronic strip onto a flexible sheet of polyester using commercially available conductive nanoparticle ink.

"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 technology has the potential to not only advance healthcare, but also to accelerate basic and applied research, according to Esfandyarpour:

It would allow scientists and clinicians to potentially analyze more cells in shorter time periods, manipulate stem cells to achieve efficient gene transfer and develop cost-effective ways to diagnose diseases. 

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