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Panasonic develops DNA-scanning 'lab-on-a-chip'

Could speed detection of disease and more effective drug prescriptions

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Boffins at Japanese IT giant Panasonic have been showing off a “lab-on-a-chip” capable of rapidly analysing patient DNA so that doctors can quickly and easily identify disease and prescribe effective medication.

The testing chip, developed with Belgium-based research firm IMEC, is less than half the size of a business card and can complete the entire process in just an hour, rather than several days to a week with conventional equipment.

Ichiro Yamashita, senior researcher at Panasonic, told DigInfo that the key to testing was in detecting so-called SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms) – small variations which occur within a person’s genetic sequence.

Doing so can help doctors discover genetically transmitted diseases as well as evaluating whether a particular drug will work for a patient. Some anti-cancer drugs, for example, are only effective if used by people whose DNA contains certain SNPs.

Once a single drop of blood is placed on the chip, it’s mixed with a chemical and the DNA extracted. The parts of the DNA containing SNPs are then isolated and amplified using technology called PCR, which apparently cuts out the desired parts of DNA by varying the temperature.

“Through careful attention to thermal separation design, we've achieved high-speed PCR, where 30 temperature cycles are completed in nine minutes. We think this is one of the fastest PCR systems in the world,” Yamashita said.

This amplified bit of DNA is then pumped to a filter, where it’s further separated and then passed through to a new electrochemical sensor which is able to identify the all-important SNPs.

Yamashita told DigInfo that scaling the whole process down into a small chip required powerful micro-pumps to fire the blood from one part to the other. Panasonic used a conductive polymer for the actuators, enabling them to exert pressure of up to 30MPa.

As well as enabling “tailor-made therapy” on a large scale, the system could also be used to test GM foods while they’re still in the warehouse, Yamashita explained. ®

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