Hand-held lab-on-a-chip to simplify blood tests

1st April 2013

A cell phone sized blood-count machine requiring less blood than a mosquito bite will make blood tests easier for many patients, from neonatal units to astronauts.

Funded by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), researchers at the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, Los Angeles, and IRIS International Inc, are working to create a hand-held device that provides accurate appraisals of blood chemistry using minute blood samples. The process takes about two minutes.

“Analysis of blood composition is how doctors test for infections and deficiencies in the immune system, monitor health and make medical diagnoses,” said Dr Yu-Chong Tai, investigator on NSBRI’s Technology Development Team.

Presently, the slow process of assessing blood composition requires bulky counting machines, trained technicians and a large amount of blood (approximately two syringes or 10ml), so analysis cannot be done in space. To assess their physiology, astronauts draw blood samples in orbit for analysis after their return.

“Normal blood-count machines are large to accommodate many samples and multiple tests, so to be safe, technicians take more blood from a patient than is actually needed.

Since our goal is to assess blood composition on a molecular level, we only need a tiny amount,” said Tai, professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering at Caltech.

“By miniaturising the counting machine, we’re able to take a smaller sample, making the device a portable tool for space flight and in clinical settings,” he added.

The blood-count machine will separate and identify components of blood such as red and white blood cells, lipids, proteins or oxygen.

Working with IRIS International Inc, a maker of digital diagnostic systems, Tai was able to build micro-sized valves, pumps and flow chambers that operate and fit together in the lab-on-a-chip.

The blood sample is pulled into a mixing chamber where anti-coagulation chemicals are injected.

Because blood has a dense population of cells, the sample then travels to a reservoir where a solution dilutes the concentration by two or three times. The sample then goes to a cell separator that divides molecules based on size.

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