UC researchers innovate with lab-on-a-chip technology

A sensor chip developed by researchers at The University of Cincinnati is small enough to be covered by a matchbook. But this little device offers huge potential for making medical care faster, easier and less painful.

UC researchers Erin Haynes, DrPH, and Ian Papautsky, PhD, are in the early stages of testing a sensor that can measure the level of manganese, a potentially toxic metal, in a blood sample. Excessive manganese exposure can cause a range of symptoms, including behavioral changes, balance problems and nervous system damage. Haynes, an environmental medicine researcher, initially began studying manganese exposure after she was contacted by residents of Marietta, Ohio, who worried that a manganese processing facility in that city was releasing dangerous amounts of the metal into the air.

Haynes says that current testing practices, which involve periodic blood testing among participants, can take up to six months or more as her team collects a batch of samples, ships them to a lab, and then waits for results.

"Families are anxious," Haynes says. "They want to know the results immediately or in a short amount of time."

Haynes says she approached Papautsky with the idea of developing a so-called lab-on-a-chip: a single-use device that could quickly test a small blood sample for manganese and provide a near-instant result.

Papautsky says this type of point-of-care testing is a hot topic in biomedical engineering. And the subject at hand presented a unique challenge, he says.

"It turns out manganese is very challenging to detect in an electrochemical approach," he says.

The researchers' prototype chip uses an electrical current to pull manganese out of the blood sample, and measures how much energy it takes to do that - the amount of energy required correlates to the amount of manganese in the sample. The electrodes normally used in this kind of device are often made from mercury, but the team found that making the electrodes out of less-toxic bismuth produced a more sensitive sensor, and one that's more environmentally friendly.

Papautsky says the chip is still in the early phases of lab testing - it has shown promise detecting manganese in blood serum, and his team hopes to test it using whole blood in the near future. It could be several years before a consumer-ready version of the chip can be deployed to Marietta, thanks to the long process of verification and testing that goes into ensuring any medical device is ready for use.

But both Papautsky and Haynes are excited about the chip's potential. Its high sensitivity could trickle down into making other tests, such as that for lead exposure, more effective. But patients young and old may better appreciate another fact: the lab-on-a-chip could one day conduct a range of front-line lab tests with only a finger-prick's worth of blood, rather than the vials required today.

"These type of systems are changing the way medicine is practiced and can be delivered," Papautsky says.

By Matt Cunningham

Follow Matt on Twitter @cunningcontent

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