COMPAMED.de spoke to Thomas Henkel, head of the department microfluidics at the Institut of Photonic Technology in Jena, Germany, about unrecognised lab-on-a-chip-systems, a chip to detect the swine flu and mass markets for lab-on-a-chip-systems.
COMPAMED.de: Mr. Henkel, such a chip is almost as large as a cheque card, but it should replace the work of a complete conventional lab. This sounds very efficient. Why do we not find such pocket-sized labs in everyday life of physicians and in hospitals?
Henkel: Some lab-on-a-chip-systems are in the market but they are often not recognized as these test types. You only have to think of a pregnancy test. This is an analytic test stripe which the user can readout directly. If the hormone, which is built in pregnancy, is binding at the antibodies on the test stripe the test shows a discolouration. The test for people with diabetic is also a lab-on-a-chip-system. Pocket-sized labs are already daily routine for diabetics.
COMPAMED.de: However, if the doctor takes a blood sample from me, I have to wait some days for the result. Can you explain why this is necessary?
Henkel: Such a blood analyse is very complex. Pocket-sized labs which can achieve the same result must be high-developed. Especially in medicine it is important that these systems work without mistakes. They have to be very valid. Studies show that it is possible to diagnose several diseases on a very small chip. In principle, the technical base exists yet. However, for special lab-on-a-chip-systems the costs are still very high. But it seems that this situation will change in the next five to ten years. Then complex pocket-sized labs could be produced also economically.
COMPAMED.de: How does a lab-on-a-chip-system work?
Henkel: In many cases only a tiny drop of the analysed fluid is necessary to attest certain viruses or bacteria. Sometimes it is even enough to analyse separate cells. The sample is given into a certain opening on the little lab and flows through micro channels. Their diameter is only a little bit thicker than a hair. If viruses or bacteria are in the sample they bind on the special molecules on the surface of the channels which can identify the germs. They are filtered and selected thus. Some pocket-sized labs show the result on the card itself, others work in combination with an analysis tool. That shows the test result after the chip is pushed into the tool, like a SIM-card into a mobile phone. However, the technology offers many different solutions.
COMPAMED.de: Researchers in the USA have developed a chip right now which detects the virus of the swine flu. This was a fast step out.
Henkel: Yes, but the basic technology is available. You only have to find out the specific molecules which can recognise the germs. To do this, it is necessary to make a genome analysis. Today this is not a problem anymore and can be offered as a service in some days.
COMPAMED.de: In which areas do you see the biggest market for pocket-sized labs?
Henkel: At the moment, lab-on-a-chip systems are interesting for biomedical research and daily routine analysis. In the future, the technology will become impact in all medical areas where diseases must be treated very fast. If a flu virus is detected early for example a pandemic maybe can be prevented. A mass market will be also on widespread diseases, like to recognise diabetic. However, in cancer research such tests will become more importance because cells who are able to cause cancer can selected through such tests. The results could be used in order to develop individual treatments. Outside the human medical sector I see a huge potential for pocket-sized labs in veterinary medicine and food industry.
COMPAMED.de: Do you think that lab-on-a-chip-systems could remove conventional labs?
Henkel: I do not think so because not all functions of an analysis could be transferred on a chip. Furthermore, physicians often have to check the presented results with independent and established methods. I think that systems which consist of two parts could have a chance to establish in the market. One part is a basic station and the other one is a removable analyse chip. Such systems make it possible for the doctor to readout the necessary parameter quick and easy.
The interview was conducted by Simone Heimann.