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New lab-on-a-chip genetic analysis resembles pinball

University of British Columbia researchers invent a silicone chip they say could revolutionize genetic analysis by allowing individual cells to fall into place like balls in a pinball machine.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
University of British Columbia

Researchers have invented a silicone lab on a chip they say could make genetic analysis far more sensitive--not to mention rapid and cost-effective--by routing fluid through microscopic tubes and valves, and allowing individual cells to fall into place much like balls in a pinball machine.

Standard genetic testing involves vast numbers of cells that, when analyzed, provide a sort of composite picture that cannot reveal the behaviors of individual cells.

"It's like trying to understand what makes a strawberry different from a raspberry by studying a blended-fruit smoothie," said Carl Hansen, an assistant professor who led the team that developed the device, which is described in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When cells have been isolated into individual chambers, however (a research team has achieved this with proteins and viruses), their RNA can be extracted and analyzed individually; this "single-cell analysis" is fast becoming the gold standard of genetic research, and it could accelerate not just genetic research but also more detailed tests for cancer diagnosis.

The researchers say the device, roughly the size of a 9-volt battery, will be easy to use and affordable because it manages to integrate nearly the entire process of cell analysis--separating the cells, mixing them with chemical reagents to highlight genetic codes, and analyzing the results by measuring fluorescent light emitted from the reaction.

"Single-cell genetic analysis is vital in a host of areas, including stem cell research and advanced cancer biology and diagnostics, but until now, it has been too costly to become widespread in research and for use in health care," Hansen says. "This technology...would make single-cell analysis a more plausible option for treating patients--allowing clinicians to distinguish various cancers from one another and tailor their treatments accordingly."

Hansen's team collaborated with researchers from BC Cancer Agency and the Center for Translational and Applied Genomics.