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Hospital To Use Microfluid Prototype For Diagnosing Tumors

IBM invents a precise probe to empower pathologists

2 min read
Hospital To Use Microfluid Prototype For Diagnosing Tumors
Lucas Laursen

Chemist Emmanuel Dellamarche held a thin slice of human thyroid tissue on a glass slide between his fingers. The tissue poses a mystery: does it contain a tumor or not? Dellamarche, who works at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, turned the slide around in his hand as he explained that the normal method of diagnosing a tumor involves splashing a chemical reagent, some of which are expensive, onto the uneven surface of the tissue and watching for it to react with disease markers. A pathologist "looks at them under a microscope, and he's using his expertise, his judgment, and looks at what chemical he used, what type of color he can see and what part and he has to come up with a diagnosis," Dellamarche says, "he has a very, very hard job, OK?"

IBM is already good at precise application of materials to flat surfaces such as computer chips. Human tissue, sliced thin enough, turns out to receptive to the company's bag of tricks too. Dellamarche, turning to one of three machines on lab benches, explained that a few years ago his team began trying to deliver reagents with more precision. University Hospital Zurich will be testing the results over the next few months.

The idea was that instead of a sprawling blot occupying most of a tissue sample, a tiny tube something like an inkjet printer could deliver many droplets onto the tissue. Pathologists might put multiple reagents on a single fingernail-sized tissue sample, saving them the need for more samples and surgery. They might make better-informed diagnoses because the printer-like machine would allow them to control how much reagent to place on the tissue and where it goes. Pathologists could also compare the effects of well-measured doses on suspected cancerous parts. "We are interested in maybe thinking about technology to go from qualitative info to more quantitative information," Dellamarche says.

But that precise delivery of the reagents proved elusive. Some of it spilled outside the target area. In 2011 Dellamarche and colleagues announced a vertical microfluidic probe, that unlike previous microfluidic probes was not parallel to the target surface. It consisted of a glass and silicon wafer about one square centimeter with one channel about a micrometer across that shot liquid to the target and another channel that vacuumed up any excess. "The trick, or the invention actually, that we had was to put a second aperture that continuously re-aspirates what we inject," Dellamarche says. Today the team can create spots just 50 micrometers across, though he says the sweet spot for diagnoses may be more like a few hundred micrometers.

The microfluidic machine is part of a trend toward keeping samples put and moving the thing that analyzes them, according to a recent review in Lab on a Chip.

The technology is attractive both to pathologists, such as those at University Hospital Zurich, and to basic researchers, with whom Dellamarche and mechanical engineer Govind Kaigala can share a larger, more customizable version in their lab.

Photo: Lucas Laursen

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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