Using new "lab-on-a-chip" technology, James Landers, a University of Virginia professor of chemistry and mechanical engineering, and associate professor of pathology, hopes to create a handheld device that may eventually allow physicians, crime scene investigators, pharmacists, even the general public to quickly and inexpensively conduct DNA tests from almost anywhere, without the need for a complex and expensive central laboratory.
"We are simplifying and miniaturizing the analytical processes so we can do this work in the field, away from traditional laboratories, with very fast analysis times, and at a greatly reduced cost," said Landers, who published a review this month of his research and the emerging field of lab-on-a-chip technology in the journal Analytical Chemistry.
"This area of research has matured enough during the last five years to allow us to seriously consider future possibilities for devices that would allow sample-in, answer-out capabilities from almost anywhere," he said.
Landers and a team of researchers at the university, including mechanical and electrical engineers, with input from pathologists and physicians, are designing a handheld device — based on a unit the size of a microscope slide — that houses many of the analytical tools of an entire laboratory, in extreme miniature. The unit can test, for example, a pinprick-size droplet of blood, and within an hour provide a DNA analysis.
"In creating these automated micro-fluidic devices, we can now begin to do macro-chemistry at the microscale," Landers said.
Such a device could be used in a doctor's office, for example, to quickly test for an array of infectious diseases, such as anthrax, avian flu or HIV, as well as for cancer or genetic defects.
Because of the quick turn-around time, a patient would be able to wait only a short time on-site for a diagnosis. Appropriate treatment, if needed, could begin immediately.
Currently, test tube-size fluid samples are sent to external labs for analysis, usually requiring a 24- to 48-hour wait for a result.