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Highlights in Chemical Science

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Genetic testing in a shoe-box

18 January 2008

Canadian scientists have succeeded in building the least expensive portable device for rapid genetic testing ever made.

The cost of carrying out a single genetic test currently varies from hundreds to thousands of pounds, and the wait for results can be weeks. Now a group led by Christopher Backhouse, University of Alberta, Edmonton, have developed a re-useable microchip-based system that costs just £500 to build, is small enough to be portable, and can be used for point-of-care medical testing.

The well-known techniques reverse transcription, polymerase chain reaction and capillary electrophoresis have been developed over recent decades to take tiny amounts of genetic material and grow and amplify them. These handling techniques make detecting genes possible, and have previously been miniaturised so they fit on a microchip that uses small channels, valves and reaction chambers.

schematic of genetic testing device

The device is about the size of a shoe-box with the optics and supporting electronics filling the space around the microchip

The team have redesigned the gene handling microchip, and used a different detection method, to develop a system that is 'comparable in performance to much bigger and more expensive machines', explained Backhouse. The size of the device is reduced to that of a shoe-box with optics instrumentation and supporting electronics filling the space around the microchip.

To keep costs down, 'instead of using the very expensive confocal optics systems currently used in these types of devices we used a consumer-grade digital camera', Backhouse explained. 

The device can be adapted for used in many different genetic tests.  'By making small changes to the system you could test for a person's predisposition to cancer, carry out pharmacogenetic tests for adverse drug reactions or even test for pathogens in a water supply,' said Backhouse.

The group strives to make genetic testing accessible to everyone in the same way computers are now. 'It's not long ago that computers were inaccessible to most people but now we all carry more than one on our person. This was made possible by integration and cost reductions,' said Backhouse. He said he plans to cut the manufacturing costs of this device to £50 in the very near future by integrating more of the electronics and further miniaturising the microfluidics.

Gavin Armstrong

Link to journal article

An inexpensive and portable microchip-based platform for integrated RT–PCR and capillary electrophoresis
Govind V. Kaigala, Viet N. Hoang, Alex Stickel, Jana Lauzon, Dammika Manage, Linda M. Pilarski and Christopher J. Backhouse, Analyst, 2008, 133, 331
DOI: 10.1039/b714308g

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