DAVID GREENE, Host:
Can the most modern of technologies help solve the health woes in the poorest countries in the world? Some biomedical engineers say the answer is yes. They're designing diagnostic laboratories that fit on something as small as a credit card and give results in minutes instead of hours or days. NPR's Joe Palca has that story.
JOE PALCA: These devices are sometimes referred to as a lab on a chip. To use them, all you need to do is obtain a drop of someone's blood.
SAMUEL SIA: And the drop of blood goes into the chip, and you wait about 15 minutes, and you will get the results.
PALCA: Samuel Sia is in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University in New York. Inside the chip are tiny channels that expose the blood to chemicals that can detect diseases. If a disease is present, a dark line will appear in a window on the chip. You can read the results by eye, or if you want to be more precise, you can use a simple reader.
SIA: You don't need a expensive microscope or something with lasers to look at it. It's something you can build with components from RadioShack if you want.
PALCA: In the current issue of Nature Medicine, Sia and his colleagues describe a chip that can detect the presence of both the AIDS virus, HIV, and syphilis in someone's blood. Tests in Rwanda showed they could detect these diseases nearly 99 percent of the time.
SIA: And that's really exciting because you really want high sensitivities if you want to have a test be used as a screening test because you don't want to miss people who possibly have the disease.
PALCA: Sia says not only is the test portable, it's relatively cheap. The chip itself is only 10 to 20 cents. The cost goes up once you add in the chemicals you need and the appropriate packaging. But...
SIA: We think we can do it for two to $3 dollars per chip, and that would include the ability to diagnose multiple diseases on one card.
PALCA: The device Sia has produced is not yet ready for widespread use. But Catherine Klapperich of Boston University says she's impressed with Sia's work. Klapperich is also building these labs on a chip.
CATHERINE KLAPPERICH: What makes Sam's approach and the approach of this group unique is that they are focused on making the instrumentation simple to use and robust to use in a low-resource environment.
SIA: Klapperich says it seems straightforward to transfer these technologies to countries with limited resources.
KLAPPERICH: But once you start designing these things, you know, you really go into the developing world and you look at how people are doing clinical medicine and you realize all of these things that you can't take for granted. Even though you think it's very simple, it's still not very simple.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PALCA: But even some enthusiastic about these devices worry they may never live up to their promise. Bernhard Weigl is a staff scientist at PATH, an international nonprofit that tries to bring appropriate health technologies to developing countries. Weigl says for these devices to be truly useful, they will have to be able to test for several diseases at once. And that's where the problems start.
BERNHARD WEIGL: Pretty soon you have a relatively complex system that either costs a lot or is complex to use or has a lot of potential failures and such things. And so because of those drawbacks, it's still not, you know, after probably about seven, eight or maybe 10 years of people working on this, it's still not completely clear that this is really going to be the way to go.
PALCA: Cheap, easy to use, accurate. Easy to say, hard to accomplish. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.
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