New tech could aid rapid medical diagnostic tools

Researchers at Bristol University have developed new technology with the potential to accelerate development of rapid medical diagnostic tools.

Example 100-micron wide 3D-printed microchannel scaffolds, shown next to a 20p coin – the cost to print 1000 of these channels (Image: Bristol University)

Microfluidic devices underpin lab-on-a-chip (LOC) technologies, which are developed to provide the rapid diagnoses that are needed at point of care for the effective treatment of many diseases. The Bristol team said their new technology is a fast, reliable and cost-effective alternative for producing the soft-lithographic moulds used for fabricating microfluidic devices.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, their study explains how fabrication of microfluidic devices with channel dimensions around the width of a human hair could be accessible and affordable using simple, low-cost 3D printing techniques and open-source resources developed by the team.

“Previously, techniques for producing the soft-lithographic scaffolds/moulds [microfluidic channel patterns] were time-consuming and extremely expensive, while other low-cost alternatives were prone to unfavourable properties,” said the study’s lead author Dr Robert Hughes. “This development could put LOC prototyping into the hands of researchers and clinicians who know the challenges best, in particular those in resource-limited settings where rapid diagnostics may often have the greatest impact.”

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Co-author Harry Felton said that the technique will allow for devices to be fabricated using only everyday domestic or educational appliances and at a ‘negligible cost’, meaning researchers and clinicians could fabricate rapid medical diagnostic tools with minimal additional expertise or resources required.

“The simplicity and minimal cost of this technique, as well as the playful click-and-connect approach developed, also makes it suitable for hobbyists and educational use, to teach about microfluidics and the applications of lab-on-a-chip technology,” said co-author Andrea Diaz Gaxiola.

The team’s next step is to identify potential collaborators in research and education to help demonstrate the impact of their technology in both settings by developing and supporting outreach activities and applications for on-chip diagnostic testing.

The research was a result of activities funded by the EPSRC, via the BristolBridge initiative, and s0-called pump-prime funding from the Faculty of Engineering, as well as work done as part of the Twinning of Digital-Physical Models During Prototyping project, funded by the EPSRC.