It's inspiring to visit a university laboratory and see fresh-faced college students working on experiments that may some day have huge impacts on our lives. And on our trip to the University of California at Berkeley this week we found just that. In the campus' Stanley Hall, there's a team of researchers working on a new blood-analysis chip or Self-powered Integrated Microfluidic Blood Analysis System (SIMBAS), that can potentially detect hundreds of diseases at once in a matter of minutes.
During my campus visit with cameraman and editor Jared Kohler, we interviewed bioengineering Professor Luke Lee and post-doctoral researcher Ivan Dimov. Both have been involved with the project from the start in September 2008 until now, the end of the first phase. They told me they began this project to make testing for infectious disease faster, cheaper, and easier for people around the world, especially in developing countries where money and resources are scarce. Their lightweight, plastic chip is a high-tech improvement over costly and complicated lab equipment from back in the day.
Here's a simple explanation for how the SIMBAS chip works, but I highly recommend reading the original study first published in the peer-reviewed journal, "Lab on a Chip." A small drop of blood is placed on the thin chip and within minutes, the red blood cells and clear plasma separate due to changes in pressure. The plasma then travels through the channels of the chip, reacting with biomarkers for specific diseases. If there are antibodies of that disease present in the blood, they'll bind together and create a visual signal through a chip-reading device and computer program. While Dimov and Lee originally designed the chip for diseases like HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, they said you could test hundreds of diseases where the biomarker is known, like certain types of cancer. And the best part? This whole process takes place in roughly 10 minutes!
In addition to our visit to Berkeley, we also stopped by one of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation's HIV testing clinics in San Francisco, tucked away in the back of one of its owned and operated thrift stores, Out of the Closet. We spoke with Dale Gluth, a program manager within the organization who has been involved with HIV prevention and testing for nearly two decades. He told us that HIV testing technology has come a long way since he first started in the field. Back then in the early 1990s, when HIV blood tests were first available, it would take nearly three weeks to get results. Now, answers can be found within minutes. Gluth wholeheartedly supports the research at UC Berkeley, claiming the high speed and accuracy of that test would allow his clinic to service more people and eliminate any human error.
The UC Berkeley researchers are planning on submitting the chip for FDA approval in the next two years. In the meantime, they're working on developing a handheld device or cell phone application to make it even easier to read the chip results.