A hand-held device that may permit physicians, forensic experts, pharmacists and everyone else to quickly and cheaply conduct a DNA test is being designed.
"We are simplifying and miniaturising the analytical processes so we can do this work in the field, away from traditional laboratories, with very fast analysis times, and at a greatly reduced cost," said James P. Landers, University of Virginia (U-V) professor of chemistry, mechanical engineering and associate professor of pathology.
"We can now do lab work in volumes that are thousands of times smaller than would normally be used in a regular lab setup, and can do it up to 100 times faster," he said.
"This area of research has matured enough during the last five years to allow us to seriously consider future possibilities for devices that would allow sample-in, answer-out capabilities from almost anywhere," he said.
Such a device could be used in a doctor's office, for example, to quickly test for an array of infectious diseases, such as anthrax, avian flu or HIV, as well as for cancer or genetic defects.
Because of the quick turnaround time, a patient would have to wait only a short time on site for a diagnosis. Appropriate treatment, if needed, could begin immediately. Currently, test tube-size fluid samples are sent to labs for analysis, requiring 24 to 48 hours for a result, said an Eurekalert report.
Hand-held micro labs also would be useful to crime scene investigators who could collect and analyse even a tiny sample of blood or semen on the scene, enter the finding into a genetic database, and possibly identify the perpetrator very soon after a crime has occurred.
Landers and a team of researchers at U-V, including mechanical and electrical engineers, with input from pathologists and physicians, are designing a hand-held device - the size of a slide - that miniaturises many analytical tools of an entire lab.
The unit can test, for example, a pin-prick-size droplet of blood, and within an hour provide a DNA analysis. "In creating these automated micro-fluidic devices, we can now begin to do macro-chemistry at the microscale," Landers said.
"Time is of the essence when dealing with an infectious disease such as meningitis. We can greatly reduce that test time, and reduce the anxiety a patient experiences while waiting."
Landers said the research also dovetails with the trend toward "personalised medicine", in which medical care increasingly is tailored to the specific genetic profile of a patient.
Likewise, agri-biotechnologists could do very rapid genetic analysis on thousands of hybrid plants that have desirable properties such as drought and disease resistance, Landers said.
A review of his findings was published in Analytical Chemistry.