Smart analysis

Researchers working on the EU-funded SMART-BIOMEMS project are developing a system that could enable DNA analysis to be carried out on a single, portable device.

The project is creating a new microsystem – a lab on a microfluidic chip – that can be used in a diagnostic device to automatically analyse DNA samples with high accuracy.

Current technology limits DNA analysis to large, expensive equipment with a high potential for human error due to the different steps involved. Researchers hope that the microanalysis system will improve efficiency as well as the detection and treatment rate.

Project coordinator Gianluca Vezzani said: ‘What we are developing here is a comparatively inexpensive, easy-to-use and portable point-of-care system that will have very real clinical benefits.

‘As there are biochemical reactions occurring on the device, it has to be set up with specific reagents and biological protocols appropriate to the task at hand, and we chose cancer for the initial testing because it is such an important field.’

For the final testing of the system, the human gene TP53 will be tested in the system to identify possible cancerous mutations. The sample will be inserted into the device and the power will then be switched on to move the fluid sample within the microfluidic chip by the pressure control unit.

The results of the test will be compared to a conventional DNA procedure to check its accuracy rate. These results will be analysed by specialised software and transmitted to a standard PC.

Vezzani said: ‘The idea is to detect cancer at a very early stage, before it has a chance to spread, because we know that specific mutations in specific genes are likely to be the cause of potential tumours. The doctor can take samples on the spot, feed them into the device and get a diagnosis in a short time span.’

According to its developers, diagnosing cancer is just the start for the SMART-BIOMEMS system, with other potential applications ranging from any sort of medical testing of DNA samples to animal health and livestock breeding programmes. However, the samples analysed by the device are restricted to liquid form.

The project began in December 2005, with the system undergoing a number of revisions. The duration of the project has been extended by four months until the end of March 2009 in order for a full-test prototype to be ready for demonstration.

Vezzani claims that there are companies involved in the project that are interested in patenting parts of the core technology with a view to commercialisation. If the prototype works, a commercial device is expected to be created within two to three years.