James Landers wants to create a hand-held device that may allow quick and inexpensive DNA tests, which can be conducted without the need for a complex and expensive central laboratory.
Other than simplifying genetic testing, and reducing the costs of such tests, the new device could help pave the way toward routine delivery of such personalized care based on an individual's genetic profile.
"We are simplifying and miniaturizing 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 Landers, a University of Virginia professor of chemistry and mechanical engineering and associate professor of pathology.
"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.
With input from pathologists and physicians, Landers and his team of researchers are designing a hand-held device, based on a unit the size of a microscope slide, that houses many of the analytical tools of an entire laboratory, in extreme miniature.
A single unit can test, for example, a pin-prick-size droplet of blood, and within an hour provides a DNA analysis.
"In creating these automated micro-fluidic devices, we can now begin to do macro-chemistry at the microscale," said Landers.
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.
And due to the quick turnaround time, a patient would be able to wait only a short time onsite for a diagnosis. If needed, appropriate treatment could begin immediately.
Currently, test tube-size fluid samples are sent to external labs for analysis, that usually requires a 24- to 48-hour wait for a result.
"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," said Landers.
Hand-held micro labs also would be useful to crime scene investigators who could collect and analyze even a tiny sample of blood or semen on the scene, enter the finding into a genetic database, and possibly identify the perpetrator very shortly after a crime has occurred.
Similarly, agricultural biotechnologists could do very rapid genetic analysis on thousands of hybrid plants that have desirable properties such as drought and disease resistance, Landers said.
"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. As we improve our techniques and capabilities, the costs of fabricating these micro-analysis devices will drop enough to employ them routinely in a wide variety of settings," he said.
Landers also wants to create home DNA test kits, possibly available for purchase from pharmacies, that would allow individuals to self-test for flu or other diseases.
A review of Lander's research and the emerging field of lab-on-a-chip technology is published in the journal Analytical Chemistry.