September 20, 2008
Handheld DNA Testers On Horizon

Microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technology brings within sight hand-held field deployable DNA testers.

September 18, 2008 — Using new "lab on a chip" technology, James Landers hopes to create a hand-held device that may eventually allow physicians, crime scene investigators, pharmacists, even the general public, to quickly and inexpensively conduct DNA tests from almost anywhere, without need for a complex and expensive central laboratory.

"We are simplifying and miniaturizing the analytical processes so we can do this work in the field, away from traditional laboratories, with very fast analysis times, and at a greatly reduced cost," said Landers, a University of Virginia professor of chemistry and mechanical engineering and associate professor of pathology.

Crime scene testing has obvious value. But that won't be the biggest application. Guess what will be? Bar and club testing of prospective mates. Qualify prospective mates for likely personality characteristics. Looking for good material for a longer term relationship? Check their genetic profile. I figure women will find this especially useful. Guys who are looking for one night stands won't care as much.

This group does not have a chip ready for field deployment. But Landers says something important here: the micro-chip field has matured to the point where such a field-deployable handheld DNA tester is now within technological reach.

"This area of research has matured enough during the last five years to allow us to seriously consider future possibilities for devices that would allow sample-in, answer-out capabilities from almost anywhere," he said.

Landers and a team of researchers at U.Va., including mechanical and electrical engineers, with input from pathologists and physicians, are designing a hand-held device — based on a unit the size of a microscope slide — that houses many of the analytical tools of an entire laboratory, in extreme miniature. The unit can test, for example, a pin-prick-size droplet of blood, and within an hour provide a DNA analysis.

A device that can work from saliva or skin flakes will allow more surreptitious testing.

Women determined to have a kid but who have given up on finding a guy to help raise a child (or who simply don't want a guy around) will find this technology useful. A woman who has decided to get pregnant from a one night stand (and I know a woman who did this) could use a handheld DNA tester to decide whether a candidate in a bar has the right stuff to contribute to her baby's DNA.

European researchers think they can develop credit card sized disposable microfluidic testers for less than 50 euros.

Researchers in the European SEMOFS (Surface Enhanced Micro Optical Fluidic Systems) team knew that, to reach their goal of disposable cartridges capable of performing complex medical diagnostic tests quickly and at low cost, they would have to push existing technology to the limit.

“We are targeting state-of-the-art sensitivities or better,” says Jerôme Gavillet, the dissemination coordinator of SEMOFS, “in a system that could be available anywhere for less than €50.”

The team’s goal is a polymer-based device the size of a credit card that would incorporate sophisticated technologies to control the movement of biological fluids, detect the presence of specific proteins, for example early signs of cancer, and analyse the results.

“For each patient, a physician would open the package, put some blood or serum on the card, let it work, and then connect it to a card reader,” says Gavillet.

The relatively inexpensive card reader would display and record what the card had measured.

DNA testing in club and bar scenes wouldn't even have to be surreptitious in many cases. So a woman goes to a club. Some guy hits on her and tries to get her to go home with him. She demands a DNA sample. What's he going to do? Say no? He doesn't have much downside from saying yes. She pulls out a card. Scraps some skin off his inner cheek. Puts sample material into the end of the card. It processes. Then she pulls out a PDA which has a slot to insert the card. She slides in the card and the PDA runs an analysis program she previously downloaded. It tells her the red and green flags based on an ideal profile she previously chose. To get to her desired profile she might have hired a genetic counselor a few months before that bar encounter.

Now, if she likes his qualities but he's short of ideal maybe she takes a pill to prevent pregnancy but goes home with him anyhow.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 September 20 10:21 PM  Biotech Assay Tools

Mthson said at September 21, 2008 4:14 PM:

I wonder if such testing could really catch on.

You can tell most of what you need to know just from talking with people. Are they fit and healthy, motivated, mentally sharp, etc.

Of course, such evaluation would disqualify most people at clubs and bars, but that's a different issue ;)

Dan V said at September 22, 2008 7:06 AM:

What's a guy going to do, say no? Absolutely. Why in the hell would I agree to sleeping with some chick if I KNOW she's looking to get knocked up? I think you'd be surprised at how little the Venn diagrams labeled "guys who have the genetic traits women look for in fathers" and "guys willing to father a child overnight with a complete stranger" overlap. The legal system in America is borderline abusive to men in these situations. It may be stunning, but judges don't seem to care if she said "Oh no, I'd never ask for your help". All she has to do is point and you're liable for child support. She finds herself in a financial pinch, or perhaps just wanting a new Mercedes, and she can collect retroactive child support five years after your encounter.

No thanks.

Bob Badour said at September 29, 2008 10:56 AM:

The obvious solution to the problem Dan V raises is male contraception.

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