Someday soon, early detection of heart disease or cancer may be as simple as putting a drop of blood on a semiconductor chip smaller than a fingernail, according to a new paper in a scientific journal published by two Colorado State University engineering professors.
“Our team is working to reverse the current trends of escalating prices for medical tests by applying chips that are made the same way as integrated circuits, which allow greater performance in computers at lower costs,” said Dr. Kevin Lear, a Colorado State electrical and computer engineering professor who is leading the research. He noted that using silicon microelectronics technology makes it easy to include “smarts” on the chip to interpret the sensor signals and send them to a laptop or cell phone.
Dr. Lear’s co-principal investigator on the project is Dr. David Dandy,
Head of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Drs. Lear and
Dandy also are faculty
members in CSU’s School of Biomedical Engineering, a joint project of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the College of Engineering.
In an article featured on the cover of an August issue of the journal, Lab on a Chip, the professors reported they can detect proteins landing on a silicon chip by directing a laser or LED beam along the surface of the chip and watching where the light is deflected very slightly toward the proteins. Surface treatments that allow only specific types of proteins or other biomolecules to stick to particular areas on the chip let the researchers test what proteins are present in a fluid such as blood, urine or saliva.
The new chip is intended to simplify and speed up medical diagnostics and other biosensor applications by eliminating extra chemicals, special equipment and complex steps often required for current laboratory tests. The ability to sense the type of biomolecules reaching the chip qualifies it as a biosensor - a class of devices used in medical, environmental and food safety applications.
“This is part of the new wave of personalized medicine and point-of-care diagnostics, which can help with testing conditions in sub-Saharan Africa where 5,000 people a day die from tuberculosis,” Dr. Dandy said. “With this proposed lab-on-a-chip technology, a nurse or doctor in Africa could put a drop of blood on a device the size of a USB flash drive and almost instantly make a diagnosis.”
The biosensor chip concept was launched in 2003 with a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers recently obtained $50,000 in seed money from Colorado State’s Infectious Disease Supercluster to improve the platform for tuberculosis detection.