Scientists from IBM Research in Zurich are developing what they call a “tissue micro-processor”.
They say their microfluidic probe could accurately diagnose disease from minute biological samples.
JULIEN CORS, IBM RESEARCHER:
“We work on a technology called a Microfluidic probe, which you could draw an analogy, it’s kind of a chemical pen where we are able to basically confine chemicals at the micro-metre length scale. And this allows us to perform local reactions; really confined and localised where we want on open surfaces.”
Shaped like an arrow-head, the tip of the silicon probe holds two small microchannels.
Each is about 50 microns in diameter; about the width of a human hair.
One channel deposits the sample onto a surface. The other continuously sucks the fluid back up to prevent spreading.
This leaves a concentrated biological sample on the surface.
GOVIND KAIGALA, IBM RESEARCHER:
“If you don’t have the initial deposit of the protein of equal homogeneity on the surface, then it would be very difficult to ascribe a specific number to it… In diagnostics we need to go beyond a yes and no type of answer. We need to go into a regime where we are able to say there is this much of the disease burden or the disease burden is much more. And that will in many ways have implications to what type of medication is provided to the patient.”
One cancer expert says the technology could one day make early detection of cancer much easier.
PROFESSOR LAWRENCE YOUNG, PRO-VICE CHANCELLOR AT UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK:
“So at this stage I think it’s very experimental… But this technology is going to allow you to look in a more focused… If you can biopsy a small amount of tissue and start to identify small numbers of cells that might be cancerous, then that’s really exciting. And that’s where I think this technology could be quite useful.”
A working prototype of the device is being used at the University Hospital Zurich, with IBM scientists working alongside pathologists.
Eventually they want to partner with a medical equipment manufacturer to license the technology and bring it to market.