Lab on a Chip Measures Disease Immunity in Vulnerable Groups

How the device, created with a “hacker mentality,” analyzes resistance to vaccine-preventable conditions like measles.

Images have been cropped and resized. Courtesy of University of Toronto, Ryan Fobel, Wheeler Lab.

A new so-called “lab-on-a-chip” technology has proved effective at identifying immunity to measles and rubella, a finding that could make the diagnostic system a key tool in pinpointing remote and underserved populations at risk of disease epidemics, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Toronto developed the portable, reconfigurable diagnostic platform—the MR Box, a “desktop lab the size of a toaster oven”—and then tested it in a far-flung Kenyan refugee camp called Kakuma, which had just underwent a “massive public-health immunization campaign,” according to the school. Once there, investigators tested several hundred kids and their caregivers in search of molecular markers that indicate disease immunity, sending the results to a national laboratory for validation, according to the university.

Compared to laboratory-standard tests, the device picked up 86% of measles samples and 91% of rubella samples, according to the study, recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. Researchers hailed the findings as a strong first step for a brand-new technology designed to help populations that might otherwise go without such a public health resource.

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“Our platform is inexpensive, fast, and flexible. There’s nothing like it out there,” noted Darius Rackus, PhD, a lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Wheeler Microfluidics Laboratory. “We see it as a powerful tool for public health workers on the front lines, who have no access to health records or may be dealing with humanitarian emergencies.”

The technology leverages an area of study called digital microfluidics, which is a process designed to move, split, and recompose “miniscule” droplets of liquid on a chip, according to the university. These chips are made from ink-jet or 3D printing, and they manage droplets through electric signals.

For refugees and other vulnerable populations, disease outbreaks are a grave threat. The researchers noted that measles kills roughly 134,000 people each year, and congenital rubella syndrome causes birth defects in about 100,000 kids annually. But the damage wrought is unnecessary, as measles and rubella can be averted by vaccines.

The team behind the MR Box claims the technology can be used for other geographic locations, populations, and diseases. They’re working on new chips, for instance, to test for markers related to zika and malaria.

“What we’ve demonstrated is a universal platform,” said Aaron Wheeler, PhD, who oversees the microfluidics lab in Toronto. “Our microfluidic chips are relatively generic and highly customizable. Now that we’ve seen how practical it is in the field, we want to adapt it to as many diseases and environmental conditions as we can.”

Researchers said the tech may one day be used at the point of care to monitor immunity levels, possibly preventing outbreaks. The chips might also increase global disease surveillance and cut costs stemming from diagnostic labs.

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