Geneva | Scientists have developed a low-cost, portable device that can accurately diagnose diseases such as Ebola and may help monitor epidemics even in remote regions with limited health facilities. Such microfluidic devices are composed of silicone rubber with minuscule channels the width of a hair.
They can rapidly detect a number of different biomarkers in very small quantities of blood. Researchers at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) in Switzerland developed a new type of microfluidic platform that runs on battery power and is completely self-sustained. It operates seamlessly with inexpensive microscopes and provides very high levels of accuracy and detection.
It can quantify up to 16 different biomarkers in a tiny amount of blood (less than 0.005 millilitres). The biomarkers are usually enzymes, proteins, hormones or metabolites and the concentration of these molecules in the blood provides precise information on the patient’s health condition.
The device is unique in that it is composed of both analogue and digital detection mechanisms, while conventional devices only integrated one or the other. Digital detection is highly sensitive and can detect the presence of a single biomarker.
However, it is less effective when the concentration of biomarkers is too high, due to signal saturation. Analogue measurements, on the other hand, function best at higher biomarker concentrations. Using these two detection mechanisms simultaneously, the composition of a drop of blood can be thoroughly analysed in a short amount of time.
The analysis provides precious medical information – it could help doctors make an early diagnosis or determine the stage of a disease. Initial testing has been successfully carried out on a sample containing anti-Ebola antibodies, which indicate the presence of the virus in both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients.
The device could work with a large number of other protein biomarkers and molecules. Researchers also found that they could load the blood sample directly onto the device and perform on-chip biomarker quantitation without requiring any sample pre-treatment. For researchers, it is quite interesting to be able to avoid having to separate the blood, said lead author Francesco Piraino. Blood plasma separation requires centrifuges, large volume samples and a long processing time.
The platform will lead the development of new kinds of tests to meet the increasing demand for on-site diagnostic testing, said Piraino. It will prove very useful for medical staff working in resource-limited regions, he said. The device could, for example, be used to monitor endemic, epidemic, and pandemic disease outbreaks. The study was published in the journal ACS Nano.