Engineering a Palm-sized Biopsy Lab

By on February 12, 2014

A typical biopsy screening begins by taking a tissue sample, sending it to a lab to cut into small pieces, staining the sample to put onto slides, and analyzing the tissues in two dimensions to identify abnormalities.  The entire process is lengthy (especially for the patient awaiting the results) and requires access to a pathology laboratory.

Scientists and engineers at the University of Washington are manufacturing a device the size of a credit card that analyzes biopsy results with less time and money—and in three dimensions.

The design of the device is modeled for the detection of pancreatic cancer, ranked as one of the top ten deadliest cancers in 2013. Lung, breast and colon cancer have shown more favorable prognoses overall in the past years due to regular screening and early detection. In contrast, 94% of patients with pancreatic cancer live less than 5 years after diagnosis. The cancer is hard to detect in its early stages, because its behavior and mechanism remains a mystery. The new analysis device would provide a quicker and more accurate vision of how the cancer has affected the tissues, resulting in a more favorable prognosis for patients.

The secret behind the prototype is microfluidics, which allows the tissue samples to easily move through channels without external energy. Once added to the channel, the tissue undergoes a wash and staining, mimicking the actions of a normal laboratory biopsy. The device does not require human hands to ever touch the sample; rather, the tissue can be directly injected. The biopsy tissues can remain intact for 3D processing, providing a more detailed cellular structure than the cut fragments used in traditional screening.

Preliminary results from the device were presented at the SPIE Photonics West conference this month. The team of scientists has successfully completed a tissue biopsy following the step-by-step procedure used in typical pathology labs. Their next goal is to streamline the process into an automated screening. A patent has been filed for the device and its future improvements. Currently, the model is very simple to manufacture, using just a petri dish, Teflon tubes and silicon. Chris Burfiend, a sophomore in mechanical engineering at UW, is responsible for the design.

The researchers hope to optimize a device that is cost, time and space efficient. This could provide mechanisms for biopsy processing to remote locations overseas where pathological resources are not available. The overall concept of microfluidics is promising to a range of tissue processing applications. During the quest for the cure for cancer, it is essential to recognize that the smallest of innovations could have a larger impact than anyone could imagine.

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