Headlines Published on 5 January 2011

Title EU project develops 'in-office' health test system

One of the most nerve-racking things about being tested for some medical condition is the long wait you endure while you wait for your results to come in. It could take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to know your results. But EU-funded researchers are changing all this. The MICROACTIVE ('Automatic detection of disease related molecular cell activity') project has developed a microchip that allows physicians to diagnose a patient's condition right in their office. MICROACTIVE received EUR 1.6 million under the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

Sample set for lab work © SINTEF
Sample set for lab work

The advanced integrated system, which is based on microtechnology and biotechnology, helps keep your medical testing information at the doctor's office instead of being sent to a laboratory. This tiny chip gives the doctor your test results then and there.

For instance, a blood sample whose protein content and genes, among other things, are to be read must be submitted to a series of complex processes, including heat treatment, mixing with enzymes, centrifugation and concentration of disease markers. What this means is that central laboratories receive the samples and perform analyses. This is a time-consuming process. Another case in point is tests for cervical cancer. The sample of cells that are scraped from a woman's cervix are analysed under the microscope. Experts say diagnostic error rates can be high when abnormal cell appearance is determined by even experienced eyes.

According to the MICROACTIVE team, the new 'health chip' contains a complete laboratory and resembles a credit card. While the partners used cells taken to diagnose cervical cancer as a case study, the chip can actually assess various diseases triggered by bacteria or viruses, as well as different types of cancer.

Several narrow channels containing chemicals and enzymes in the correct proportions for single analyses are engraved in the chip. When the patient's sample has been drawn into the channels, these reagants are mixed.

'The health chip can analyse your blood or cells for eight different diseases,' explained Liv Furuberg and Michal Mielnik of the Norwegian-based group SINTEF, the coordinating body of MICROACTIVE. 'What these diseases have in common is that they are identified by means of special biomarkers that are found in the blood sample. These "labels" may be proteins that either ought or ought not to be there, DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] fragments or enzymes. This little chip is capable of carrying out the same processes as a large laboratory, and not only does it perform them faster, but the results are also far more accurate. The doctor simply inserts the card into a little machine, adds a few drop of the sample taken from the patient via a tube in the cardholder, and out come the results.'

A group of researchers from MiNaLaB at SINTEF has developed several techniques for interpreting the results when the biomarkers have been found. The results, for instance, can be read off in an optical instrument in which the RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecules in various markets emit specific fluorescent signals.

'SINTEF's lab-on-a-chip projects have shown that it is possible to perform rapid, straightforward diagnostic analyses with the aid of microchips, and we are now working on several different types of chip, including a protein analysis chip for acute inflammations,' Dr Furuberg said.

Keen to commercialise the results of their study, the researchers are working with a hospital acting as end user to validate system usability and clinical accuracy.

Researchers from Germany and Ireland contributed to this study.

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