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Innovation

Lab-on-a-chip is the hot trend in diagnostics

Diagnostics over the next 10 years will move from the back line to the front line of medical care. And at much lower cost.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

Of all the medical breakthroughs emerging from research labs today, none seems likely to have such an impact on how health care is delivered than the Lab on a Chip.

(Picture of researcher John McDevitt from CNET, by Jeff Fitlow at Rice University.)

Companies as large as IBM, to LabNow in Austin, Texas, to start-ups are commercializing systems that can diagnose a variety of diseases in the field, or in a doctor's office.

People like John McDevitt, now at Rice University, are creating the tests, with input from subject matter experts like Martin Thornhill, a British tissue researcher.

McDevitt, who was previously at UT-Austin, calls his work the "integrated bio-nano chip," because biologic agents and small sensor chips are combined on a single slide.

The revolution is that tests can now be done at the point of care, inside a computer that fits into a backpack.

Many aspects of this are also subject to the economics of Moore's Law -- as they go into mass production costs go down. The basic LabNow device is already priced at just $250.(I got that wrong. The link is to a report on the device, which costs about $250.)

(UPDATE: McDevitt writes to say he expects instrument costs to drop 80% and test costs by 50% from present levels using this technology.)

This also means that researchers can create start-ups that deliver specific tests for the LabNow, much as software companies developed in the wake of the IBM PC. Throat cancer -- there's an app for that.

Tests for various diseases, whether in poultry or people, become applications on a standardized platform.

Much of the publicity about LabNow involves the ability to truck it into remote areas and do tests for diseases like AIDS. But the real revolution is in low-cost testing that can be done in a doctor's office.

Instead of having a physician send a blood sample to, say, Quest Diagnostics, analysis on specific diseases can be done the way a pediatrician today tests for strep throat.

Whenever my kids went to their pediatrician with a cough and cold symptoms, the strep test was his first thought. It was cheap, it was quick, it was results while-you-wait.

Now imagine this being done for AIDS or cancer. Imagine a medical clinic having a host of these slides, every nurse trained to collect swabs and test them,  instant answers to questions we now agonize over for weeks, a treatment regimen chosen during your first office visit.

The impact of this on the system should not be underestimated. Entire industries and hospital specialties have been built over the last decades to do what this simple machine can do in a matter of minutes.

The industries and specialties won't disappear. They will evolve. But gradually they will be worn down, and diagnostics over the next 10 years will move from the back line to the front line of medical care. And at much lower cost.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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