The race for smaller and smarter gadgets is the hallmark of modern technology. Making it cheaper is completely a new ballgame.

Take for example the newly-developed lab on a chip (LOC) technology by a group of researchers from Stanford University. The biochip, which costs less than a penny to make, can perform diagnosis for diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, HIV and cancer.

The massive reduction of cost in making each chip is good news for point-of-care diagnostic centers in developing countries worldwide, lead author Rahim Esfandyarpour of Stanford University said.

The technology, described by a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Feb. 6, promises to improve the capabilities for diagnostic — particularly in developing countries.

The low survival rate of breast cancer patients in poor and developing countries is partly due to poor access to early diagnostic. Also prevalent in developing countries are diseases like malaria and tuberculosis that can be effectively treated if diagnosed early.

The LOC is seen as big boost for a better and cheaper access to diagnostics which, according to Esfandyarpour, also an engineering research associate at Stanford, can be used "anywhere, as long as you have a printer."

Lab On A Chip: A Combination Of Microfluidics, Electronics, And Inkjet Technology

Among developing countries, the point-of-care diagnostic facility is facing with limited funds, minimal health infrastructure, and power supply shortage.

The inexpensive LOC seeks to address these challenges when the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers integrated the multiple laboratory functions in one cheap and reusable biochip.

Just like any microchip, the LOC is made up of an integrated circuit combined with microfluidics, and ink jet technology. The device will analyze cells and body fluids instead of calculating numbers.

The LOC is label-free, which means it does not need fluorescent or magnetic labels in tracking cells.

Here's how it works: An electric charge, also called as potential, is applied to the chip. The cells in the sample will separate according to their inherent electrical properties to enable the researchers to isolate certain types of cells. This process could lead to identifying tumor cells in the bloodstream and subsequently lead to early detection of cancers.

The concept is not new, after all. Several "lab on a chip" designs were developed for the last 20 years but with not so positive outcomes.

Getting this technology into clinics and diagnostic centers in a developing country is a challenge, said Julien Reboud at the University of Glasgow.

LOC Is Not A Replacement

Agreeing that the biochip has greater usability with laboratories with inkjet printers, Reboud also warned that it is not a replacement for all what is needed in conventional diagnosis.

He reminded that the new LOC still requires pumping fluid sample into it — a procedure that might not be readily available in some laboratories of the developing countries.

The tone at Stanford University is optimistic seeing the technology's potential to advance the cause of health care and, hopefully, accelerate research in the field of biomedicine.

The LOC will make the life of the researchers easier and laboratory diagnosis faster and simpler, Esfandyarpour said.

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