Imagine shrinking a refrigerator-sized spectrophotometer, fragile glass beakers and petri dishes, chemicals and heaters of a chemistry lab onto a tiny microchip that is the size of a key chain? A growing number of companies and universities are claiming to have devised miniaturized laboratories on a single piece of microelectronic chip that can perform vital analyses – from detecting biological warfare agents in a soldier’s bloodstream to identifying toxins in potable water.
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Lab-on-chips is revolutionizing the field of medical diagnosis. These miniaturized devices are capable of performing laboratory operations on a single micro-process chip using very minute amounts of analytical samples.
Lab-on-chip, also known as micro analytical system, combines microfluidics and microelectronics on a single chip to perform complex biological tests. It is used in the application of microfluidic-chip-based technologies such as medical diagnostics, chemical synthesis and the study of complex cellular process.
India, China are emerging market leaders in Asia
According to a report by Persistence Market Research (PMR), USA dominates the global market for lab-on-chips application due to large number of aging population. Asia, followed by Europe, is expected to show high growth rates in the next five years in global lab-on-chips application market. China and India are expected to be the fastest growing lab-on-chips application markets in the Asia-Pacific region. Some of the key driving forces for the lab-on-chips application market in emerging countries is increasing R&D investment, large pool of patients and rising government funding.
The most intriguing aspect of these tiny laboratories is their customizability. These lab-on-chips can be designed and fabricated to suit the type of analysis required. Micro components required for the lab-on-chip device can be custom chosen and placed on the design layout. Similar to playing with Lego blocks! 3D printing can then be employed to give a physical form to the designed device.
Lab-on-chips fabricated like Legos
The Lego like “modular fluidic and instrumentation components” (MFICs, or “em-fix”) were designed by a team at the University of Southern California, led by materials science graduate student Krisna Bhargava. Bhargava and his team plans to create various types of MFICs and develop an open source community in future that will help researchers share their designs and prototypes.
There are several advantages to the lab-on-a-chip approach, beyond the convenience of being able to test in the field. The test sample required is much smaller because of the sensitivity of the chip, which is useful if you need to measure trace gases in the atmosphere or the very earliest stages of cancer, when the chemical markers in the blood are low in number and would probably be missed by standard tests.
Since 1990, 28,724 patent applications have been filed in microfluidic devices and lab-on-chip technology.
The patent application filing trend shows a tremendous increase in this field in recent times. This is due to the ease of using these devices. Lab-on-chip analytical devices use less analyte and provide test results in a very short span of time.
Patenting activities across the geography shows that USPTO has been the preferred application destination. Asian countries like Japan, Korea, China and India also show significant patenting interests.
Major leaders researching in this field include Samsung, University of California and Caliper Technology.
Microfluidic Chips for Early Detection of Cancer
A most anticipated application of the tiny laboratories is in early cancer diagnosis and prognosis. 1,211 patent applications have been filed that deal with cancers and tumors.
Detection of circulating tumor cells (CTC) in the blood is a major area of focus. CTCs are considered responsible for cancer metastasis. Sensitive on-chip devices can detect CTCs present in trace quantities in the blood sample.
Recently granted patent US9108198B2 assigned to Samsung claims a microfluidic apparatus for separating cancer stem cell from biological sample e.g. tissue sample, CTC.
As the usability of the lab-on-chips grows in future, researchers will aim to fabricate low cost lab-on-chip devices that can be reached across the globe to perform various biological tests and chemical detections. Improved fabrication methods and materials to yield low cost microfluidic devices will be the major areas of focus going forward.
Early and in time diagnosis of medical conditions and detection other analytical measures can save many precious lives and time.
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