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Needle-free blood tests using lab-on-chip technology

March 6, 2018
By Rocco Portaro

At one time or another we have all had the doctor request that we undergo the "dreaded" blood test, where a nurse uses a hypodermic needle and tourniquet to fill rather large vials of blood , so doctors can analyze how our bodies are functioning.  The good news for those who despise taking blood tests, is that the conventional blood test as we know it, might soon be a thing of the past.

Typically, the procedure for blood work requires making an appointment to collect samples, sending them to a laboratory, which uses a wide range of machines to refine the samples and gather important data. The process can take a few days, is quite costly, prone to errors and might cause stress for the patient as they wait for their doctor's diagnosis. Well, what if I told you that in the future when blood work is required, rather than reaching in the drawer for a requisition form the doctor would pull out a small micro chip that could perform all of the diagnostics conducted over several days, in just a few minutes, right in his office, with only a drop of blood from your fingertip. This might seem like something that exists only in sci-fi movies; however a combination of current micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) and micro-fluidics have made this technology closer to reality than one might think. 

The goal is to construct a chip small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand. The device will take a small drop of blood and separate it amongst millions of micro channels connected to micro pumps, centrifuges and valves in order to conduct thousands of biochemical operations, a sort of mini laboratory right on the chip! Once the biochemical operations are complete, which should only require a few minutes, the doctor has seemingly instant access to your blood work.  This technology is not only very close to becoming a reality, but is being developed right in our own back yard, here in Quebec at the National Research Council Canada (NRC-CNRC) . 

The Canadian government has made significant investments in developing this technology for widespread use at its state of the art MEMS research centre, and with good reason as it has many benefits for individuals and the health care system as a whole.  Individuals will benefit from immediate diagnosis and treatment, no need to stress over waiting for results or booking a second doctor's appointment. The "real time" aspect of this technology also means that doctors will be much better equipped to handle patients in emergency situations, which results in more lives being saved!  Similarly, it will also reduce the errors which typically occur with blood tests and ensure doctors are dealing with proper data when making a prognosis. The technology will make current diagnostics much less expensive, the chip will combine many tests on a small platform rather than requiring large expensive machines that necessitate highly skilled technicians and regular maintenance/calibration. This does not only mean cost savings for the medical system, but also makes important diagnostics available to doctors working in impoverished countries, which can only dream of having the resources necessary for conducting these types of tests.

As we plow through technological boundaries and this technology makes its way closer to the doctor's office, it is not farfetched to think that engineers will be able to create a chip small enough to implant within humans.  Such a device could constantly monitor our bodies and the complex reactions occurring within them, in order to alert us when triggers for certain types of ailments, like cancer, begin to develop. This would make it possible to treat these diseases at a very early stage and not only give patients a much better chance at survival but also drastically change the way in which medicine is practiced.

About the author

Rocco Portaro received his Master's degree from Concordia University in Mechanical Engineering, whereby he developed an expertise in fluid dynamics and manufacturing. His current research interests lie in the field of biomedical engineering, an area that utilizes engineering principles to solve problems faced by clinicians. He is currently developing technology for needle-free drug delivery.  He also founded an engineering firm specializing in industrial automation, through which he wishes to offer young engineering students an opportunity to hone their skills.


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