Conditions in developing countries often make it difficult to properly diagnose people. That’s why a simple yet accurate technology is needed that can be used on the spot. Researchers at KU Leuven are developing a flexible chip that is able to detect infections and viruses in the blood. The project was awarded funding through the Grand Challenges Explorations initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The research group of Professor Jeroen Lammertyn (Division of Mechatronics, Biostatistics and Sensors) specialises in the development of technology that can detect specific molecules in blood, urine or other bodily fluids. This way researchers can check the blood for signatures of a certain disease, for instance. The technology, also called lab on a chip, is perfect for diagnosing people in developing countries; places where limited medical resources are available.
Worldwide, 36 million people are infected with the HIV virus, and 70% of those are located in Sub-Saharan Africa. A new lab on a chip device will greatly simplify the measurement of HIV viral load in someone’s blood. The viral load measurement is critical for efficient treatment of HIV infected patients. Professor Lammertyn and his colleagues Jaroslav Belotserkovsky and Michael Kraft of KU Leuven will work together to develop this technology with the Grand Challenges Explorations funding.
"What’s unique about our design is that it’s simple, which makes it cheap to produce," says Professor Lammertyn. "The device consists of two pliable plastic sheets: in between there’s an adhesive layer that contains micro channels as thin as a human hair."
"The chip has two chambers. One of the chambers contains a liquid which, when it starts flowing, generates pressure in the second chamber. This pressure moves a blood sample into the chip. The fact that no external energy source is needed offers an important advantage in developing countries. Our device is activated with the touch of a finger and can thus be used by anyone."
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The chip is pliable and can be attached to the skin like a kind of sticker. The design also works in the opposite direction: not just to collect blood or other bodily fluids, but also to inject fluids. "This allows us to also administer vaccinations with the chip. For children, we could even make a cartoon version, as it were: by simply pressing the chip, the vaccine is injected."
This project specifically focuses on HIV, but it could be applied to a broad range of other diseases and viruses. "People are increasingly interested in following up on their own health", explains Professor Lammertyn. "These devices could, for example, be used to measure your cholesterol at regular intervals. In the long term, it could also be possible for doctors to use the device to check if an infection is viral or bacterial. This would immediately tell them whether or not the patient needs antibiotics. We will definitely see more of the lab on a chip in the future, in all possible forms and not just in developing countries, but also in our regions."