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New ‘lab in a needle’ device can perform diagnostic medical tests in minutes, not days

A team of researchers from the US and Singapore are developing a new “lab in a needle” medical device that has the ability to sample and process routine lab tests with near instant results. The device, which is still just a prototype at this point, can be used in either an office setting or in the field to provide accurate diagnoses and effective follow-up treatments.

The team, comprised of researchers from Houston Methodist, Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) and the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), evaluated the prototype medical device using a common test for liver function that measures the level of AST and ALT enzymes in the blood. This test is particularly useful for cancer patients who require routine liver screening during chemotherapy. Current liver enzyme tests take several days to complete as doctors must send the sample to an external laboratory for processing and measurement. In contrast, this new lab-in-a-needle test can be used in a doctor’s office, and has the ability to obtain test results in 30 minutes.

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The sample is prepared within the prototype device using a chip that includes a miniature motor and microfluidics. A second connected chip then amplifies the sample so the enzyme levels can be measured accurately. Test results showed that enzyme levels were elevated, a result that was consistent with results obtained using standard testing procedures. “Our method significantly reduces time, manpower and costs and yet has the same accurate results,” said Joseph Chang, Ph.D., a professor at NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

According to the researchers, this is the first time that the entire process from sample preparation to enzyme level measurement were successfully integrated together. This breakthrough opens the door to the development and subsequent mass production of additional self-contained medical testing devices that could be used as a rapid diagnostic tools.