Putting tiny diagnostics to the test
A device developed by Deakin researchers that can test samples as tiny as a teardrop could well transform medical diagnostics in developing countries.
The device, which uses micro-scale technology and is only slightly larger than a home phone, will provide access to medical diagnosis and consequent treatment for people within their own village, at “point-of-care” locations, by non-qualified health staff.
Using “smart matter,” or MEMS technology, the diagnostic tool was developed by Professor Lingxue Kong, from the Institute for Frontier Materials, along with colleague Dr Sugumar Dharmalingam, and PhD students Xinchu Zhao and Wenbing Li.
Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) technology has been described as a “next gen” field of science. Combining computers with miniscule mechanical devices, such as sensors, valves and gears, which are embedded in semiconductor chips, its potential applications extend to uses as varied as aeroplane wings that reshape themselves when they encounter turbulence, to packages that “talk back” to their couriers.
The research for the diagnostic device has been undertaken with the Universiti Sains Malaysia and has been awarded a number of medals and awards, including the Japan Intellectual Property Association’s Award for “The Best Invention in Biotechnology”.
The global financial services company UBS has recognised its potential for developing countries and has provided strong support for its development.
Through high precision, the device is able to detect positive or negative results for specific diseases, using tiny polymer chips to contain the samples. Once fully developed, it will have the capacity to test for a range of diseases, such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, SARS and Avian viruses, or breast cancer.
Professor Kong explained that increasing pandemics of contagious diseases make the need for point-of-care diagnostics more pressing. He said that, currently, many people in rural areas are not being diagnosed early enough, or at all. This means that they are not getting adequate treatment and the chances of containing the disease are much smaller.
Key benefits of the device are its ease of use, portability, fast testing time and cost effectiveness.
“The testing can be done in about a third of the time, and, until now, chips used for this type of analysis have been made from glass or silicone, which cost hundreds of dollars each,” said Professor Kong. “We have used injection moulding to produce polymer chips, which has brought the price of the chip down to virtually nothing.”
The new device is initially expected to be embraced by the Indian and Chinese markets, but, of course, it could be of benefit in all developing nations.
Two labs in India have already expressed “strong interest” in testing the device, and it is currently being used to test for more than 16 infectious diseases related to ocular (eye) infections, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, by researchers at the Sankara Nethralaya Vision Research Foundation, a not-for-profit charitable eye hospital in Chennai, India.
Professor Kong is about to take his device to Spain, Paris and Switzerland, where he hopes to get the additional support that will see his devices on the ground where they are needed most.