Scientists at the University of British Columbia have invented a lab-on-a-chip that could reduce the cost of genetic analysis while improving its speed and sensitivity. Roughly the size of a nine-volt battery, the unit directs fluid carrying cells through tiny tubes and valves, ultimately isolating the cells into separate chambers. Once the cells are separated, their genetic material can be removed and replicated for future study.
Standard genetic tests present composite data based on thousands, or even millions, of cells. By contrast, the new lab-on-a-chip can analyze cells individually. This functionality comes in handy in cancer diagnosis because a single tumor can include a combination of various cancer cells and normal cells.
“[Using standard genetic tests is] like trying to trying to understand what makes a strawberry different from a raspberry by studying a blended fruit smoothie,” says Carl Hansen, an assistant professor in the Deptartment of Physics and Astronomy and the Centre for High-Throughput Biology, who led the team that developed the device.
The device was developed by Hansen’s team, in collaboration with researchers from BC Cancer Agency and the Centre for Translational and Applied Genomics.
The device’s ease of use and cost-effectiveness arise from its integration of almost the entire process of cell analysis – not just separating the cells, but mixing them with chemical reagents to highlight their genetic code and analyzing the results by measuring fluorescent light emitted from the reaction. Now all of that can be done on the chip.
“Single-cell genetic analysis is vital in a host of areas, including stem cell research and advanced cancer biology and diagnostics,” Hansen says. “But until now, it has been too costly to become widespread in research, and especially for use in health care. This technology, and other approaches like it, could radically change the way we do both basic and applied biomedical research, and would make single-cell analysis a more plausible option for treating patients— allowing clinicians to distinguish various cancers from one another and tailor their treatments accordingly.”