‘Lab on a chip’ diagnosis tool costs just one cent, could save countless lives

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Zahra Koochak/Stanford School of Medicine
It’s one thing to invent impressive technology and another entirely to do it at a price point that truly makes it accessible to people around the world.

Researchers at Stanford University have achieved both with an impressive new “lab on a chip” system which, by their estimation, costs just one cent to make — but could help diagnose diseases as wide-ranging as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV.

“The motivation was how to export technology, how to decrease the cost of medical diagnosis, and how to democratize medical research,” researcher Rahim Esfandyarpour, an engineering associate at the Stanford Technology Center, told Digital Trends. “We hope to bring affordable and accessible technology-based solutions to medicine by designing something that everyone can use to create their own required instrumentation.”

The lab on a chip is made up of two parts. There is a transparent silicone microfluidic chamber that is used for housing cells and a reusable electronic strip. Then there is a standard inkjet printer (sold separately) with which an electronic strip can be printed onto a sheet of flexible polyester using conductive nanoparticle ink.

The process requires no fancy “clean room” and printing takes just 20 minutes.

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Rahim Esfandyarpour helped to develop a way to create a diagnostic “lab on a chip” for just a penny. Zahra Koochak/Stanford School of Medicine

The idea is that it can analyze cell types based on how they are pulled in different directions in the microfluidic chamber when an electrical field is applied. Using it, researchers can isolate individual cells and much more — with a price point that, in some cases, is literally $100,000 less than a commercial lab-standard machine would cost to do the same thing.

“Enabling early detection of disease is honestly one of the greatest opportunities that we have for developing treatment and prevention strategy, as well as for reducing the cost of healthcare,” Esfandyarpour continued.

It all sounds complicated and, from a design perspective, it is, but the way in which it can be used makes it accessible to people even with minimal training.

As to when it will be available, Esfandyarpour said there may be a bit of a wait, however. “Although we have very interesting results, it still requires more work in order to carry out commercialization of the solution,” he said. “We’re doing our best to get it ready as soon as possible, but it’s hard to give a specific date because there are some many factors involved — including the funding.”

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