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    A view of IBM Research’s nanoDLD chip mounted in a microfluidic jig.

    Image: IBM
    August 2016
    A tiny chip can separate bioparticles and diagnose diseases before symptoms emerge, which could revolutionize the treatment of ailments from the flu to cancer.

    IBM recently developed a chip that shrinks down all of the lab processes necessary to uncover certain diseases into a flat, 2-by-2 centimeter square, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

    For those who are not familiar, lab-on-a-chip is the concept of miniaturizing chemical and biochemical analysis to the point where it fits on a single computer chip-like device.

    “The goal of lab-on-a-chip technologies is to shrink down to a single silicon chip all of the processes necessary to analyze a disease that would normally be carried out in a full-scale biochemistry lab,” said Joshua Smith, a researcher at IBM’s Nanobiotechnology Group. These technologies are a helpful tool for physicians, as they can be faster, portable, easy-to-use, and require less sample volume to detect diseases, according to the IBM release.

    SEE: What’s next for nanotechnology and how a pair of Kentucky universities will be at the forefront

    A doctor places a blood, urine, or saliva sample on the IBM chip, and the chip then separates the sample’s biological markers by size down to 20 nanometers—allowing access for the first time to DNA, viruses, and exosomes.Exosomes—pouches of liquid secreted by cells, and released in bodily fluids—are 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Before the IBM chip, the smallest bioparticle that could be separated by size via a chip was about 50 or more times larger.

    Once these particles are separated, doctors can analyze them to potentially reveal signs of diseases including cancer—even before the patient experiences any physical symptoms. This way, doctors can treat the disease before it progresses.

    “By having a less invasive and cheap way of separating out exosomes for analysis, our lab-on-a-chip technology can give physicians a view into the origin of a cancer, or if a cancer has metastasized before physical symptoms appear in the patient,” said Smith. “Also, physicians may be able to use the technology as a point-of-care device to see how the patient is doing after treatment.”

    However, it is still difficult to identify markers that are excreted by just a few cells in the body, says Mark Swihart, professor at the University of Buffalo and director of the UB2020 Strategic Initiative in Integrated Nanostructured Systems. “This provides one more step in that searching strategy,” he said.

    Future medical applications

    Lab-on-a-chip will also be a much more cost-effective medical analysis tool in the future, Swihart said. The current alternative—performing many different lab tests for each biomarker—is very labor intensive, he added. “The extent that it can be miniaturized and automated, it becomes more cost-effective and practical to test for more things at the same time,” he said.

    This technology is something that should be on the radar of tech leaders, Swihart said. “There is a lot of development left to be done to implement this for specific cases,” he added. “But these kind of miniaturized analyses are only going to become more widespread in medical application.”

    For example, in the not-so-distant future, Swihart said he can imagine a person putting a drop of blood into a machine similar to a diabetic’s glucose monitor, but it could test for at least 50 different biological processes.

    Several technological milestones remain before chips can be made available to the broader medical community, Smith said, including scaling up sample volumes and developing different surface chemistries that are targeted to other bioparticles, such as viruses.

    “The goal is to create an adaptable lab-on-a-chip platform through a broader integration strategy doing exactly what IBM has done very well historically, which is the development of advanced semiconductor platforms,” Smith said.

    IBM is partnering with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to continue developing the lab-on-a-chip technology, with plans to test it on prostate cancer.

    The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

    1. IBM developed a chip that shrinks down all of the lab processes necessary to uncover diseases into a flat 2-by-2 centimeter square, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
    2. The chip separates a blood, saliva, or urine sample’s biological markers by size down to 20 nanometers—allowing access to DNA, viruses, and exosomes. The smallest particles that could be accessed by the previous chip were at least 50 times larger.
    3. There is still work to be done before these chips can be made more broadly available, but tech leaders should be aware of their capabilities.


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