IBM's lab-on-a-chip promises miniaturised medical diagnosis

IBM has developed ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology that is designed to separate biological particles at the nanoscale to enable physicians to detect diseases such as cancer before symptoms appear.

The chip is capable of separating bioparticles down to 20 nanometres (nm) in diameter, a scale that gives access to important particles such as DNA, viruses and exosomes (small fluid-filled sacs containing material originating from cells).

Once separated, these particles can be analysed by physicians to reveal signs of disease even before patients experience any physical symptoms in order to provide the best possible outcome.

Until now, the smallest bioparticle that could be separated by size with on-chip technologies was about 50 times larger, for example, separation of circulating tumour cells from other biological components.

IBM has worked with a team from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, to develop the chip and plans to test it on prostate cancer, the most common cancer in men in the US.

In the era of precision medicine, exosomes are increasingly being viewed as useful biomarkers for the diagnosis and prognosis of malignant tumours.

Exosomes are released in easily accessible bodily fluids such as blood, saliva or urine. They are a very useful biomedical tool as they can be used in the context of less invasive liquid biopsies to reveal the origin and nature of a cancer.

The IBM team targeted exosomes with their device as existing technologies face challenges for separating and purifying exosomes in liquid biopsies.

They range in size from 20-140nm and contain information about the health of the originating cell that they are shed from. Determining the size, surface proteins and nucleic acid cargo carried by exosomes can give essential information about the presence and state of developing cancer and other diseases.

The team is now planning to confirm their device is able to pick up exosomes with cancer-specific biomarkers from patient liquid biopsies.

“The ability to sort and enrich biomarkers at the nanoscale in chip-based technologies opens the door to understanding diseases such as cancer as well as viruses like the flu or Zika,” said Gustavo Stolovitzky, who worked on the project at IBM Research.

“Our lab-on-a-chip device could offer a simple, noninvasive and affordable option to potentially detect and monitor a disease even at its earliest stages, long before physical symptoms manifest. This extra amount of time allows physicians to make more informed decisions and when the prognosis for treatment options is most positive.”

Lab-on-a-chip technologies have become an incredibly helpful diagnostic tool for physicians as they can be significantly faster, portable, easy to use and require less sample volume to help detect diseases.

IBM hopes to eventually shrink the devices down to a single silicon chip that carries all of the processes necessary to analyse a disease that would normally be carried out in a full-scale biochemistry lab.

Its current device is roughly 2cm by 2cm and it is continuing development to increase the device density to improve its functionality.

In 2014, German engineers unveiled a wireless lab-on-a-chip system that was designed to monitor the health of elderly people.

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