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ST builds chips for gene detection

STMicroelectronics introduces a prototype of a chip that, if released commercially, could substantially cut the costs for scanning for genetic diseases.

STMicroelectronics has created a prototype of a chip that, if released commercially, could substantially cut the costs for scanning for genetic diseases.

The chip, technically called a MEMS (microelectromechanical system), essentially performs several of the tasks involved in scanning DNA for genes, a process that normally requires a battery of laboratory equipment, according to Barbara Grieco, business development manager in ST's printhead and microfluidics business unit.

Additionally, the chip needs only few drops of blood to conduct tests, less than current testing procedures, and performs tests more rapidly.

Despite a slump in overall IT spending, life sciences remains an active frontier for technology companies. Major breakthroughs, such as the human genome project, are still fairly new, and the general belief is that commercial opportunities, despite previous boom-bust cycles, will open up. Both IBM and Dell Computer, among others, have sealed significant biotech alliances with universities and drug developers this year.

"The biotech market is definitely growing strong," Grieco said. "There is a big potential there."

MEMS could also become a strong market. MEMS chips like ST's prototype, differ from standard computer chips in that they combine electrical elements, such as transistors, and mechanical elements such as miniature pumps or environmental sensors.

These minimachines are being tested in a variety of applications. Researchers, for example, have placed MEMS chips on oceanic fault lines to detect seismic movement and then relay the information across a wireless network.

DNA testing involves two basic stages: amplification, where blood samples are replicated, and detection, where harvested DNA samples are compared to other genes. The Polymerase Chain Reaction, the process for replicating DNA, typically requires a thermocycler, which repeatedly heats the sample and creates new strands. The process can take a few hours.

Because the chip works with a smaller sample, the heating and replicating cycles are shorter, allowing the chip to complete the process in 15 minutes.

"Amplification is performed in microchannels built into the silicon," Grieco said. Although quicker, ST's chips can be used only once.

When the sample is large enough, it passes through to the detection area of the chip. Samples adhere to gold electrodes and are then visually compared to the control samples.

The technology behind the chip could also be adapted for environmental testing or drug research, Grieco said.

While ST has designed the chip and performed basic validation, there is no formal release schedule. ST is looking for partners from the biosciences field to conduct further research and examine commercialization.