Medicine today is astounding, especially when compared to how little doctors could do a mere 100 years ago. The advances in medical treatment are largely due to the improvement of medical testing procedures. Doctors and specialists can examine blood and tissue samples, watch imaging studies of the organs as they work, and map out genes to calculate disease risks.
But medical testing is often prohibitively expensive. Sometimes it can take a long time. When it comes to testing new drugs, therapies, or products, clinical trials and animal testing don’t always work perfectly, leading to immense amounts of wasted resources. However, recent advances in medical testing could revolutionize healthcare.
The organ-on-a-chip could eventually change the entire face of medicine and medical testing.
The term “organ-on-a-chip” may at first sound silly or exaggerative, but it’s actually a very accurate name for the technology coming from the Wyss Institute. Researchers here have figured out how to recreate the same environment that organs are exposed to in the human body, but on a tiny scale. The chips are roughly the size of a flash drive, but one chip is, in essence, a living, functioning human organ.
Geraldine Hamilton, who’s part of the team developing organs-on-a-chip at the Wyss Institute, explains how the chips work in a TED talk, stating:
“We’re simply trying to recreate in this tiny chip the smallest functional unit that represents the biochemistry, the function, and the mechanical strain that the cells experience in our bodies… We use techniques from the computer chip manufacturing industry to make these structures at a scale relevant to both the cells and their environment.”
Each chip contains a porous central membrane where human cells can be placed. Below this are capillary cells, which are from human blood vessels, where liquid nutrients can be delivered. Above the membrane is a channel with air in it. The chips are also built to mimic the mechanical strain that these cells experience in the body. In the lung-on-a-chip, for example, mechanical forces cause the membrane (covered in human lung cells) to contract and stretch, just as the lung cells in a living human would contract as stretch while breathing.
The team at Wyss Institute is working on developing ten different organs-on-a-chip. They eventually plan to build a system that would allow them to link together all the organs, providing a more complete model of human physiology at work.
The potential applications of this medical testing technology are immense.Because these organs-on-a-chip would be human, it would provide a more accurate, humane alternative to animal testing. Safer drug, cosmetics, and toxicity testing would be possible, too. By creating altered, “diseased” organs-on-a-chip, it would also be possible to study diseases and new treatments in more detail. For instance, a “diseased” lung-on-a-chip with cystic fibrosis could be used to test new cystic fibrosis treatments. Additionally, because the organs-on-a-chip are built with translucent plastic, researchers are able to actually watch as processes take place.
Medical testing on smartphones
Even the mobile smartphone, taken for granted by most people today, could become a powerful tool for medical testing.
A group of researchers from Columbia University have developed a dongle that attaches to a phone and quickly diagnoses several diseases. A pinprick of blood is inserted, and the blood is then sucked through the channels inside the disposable credit card-sized cartridge. As the blood travels through the channels, it passes through detection zones that can show the presence of certain antibodies, which indicates whether or not an individual has a particular disease.
Despite its small size and simple use, the dongle had a 96% accuracy rate while being used by researchers at three different Rwandan community clinics. This makes it comparable to the same blood tests performed in hospitals. However, the dongle has two big advantages over traditional blood testing.
First, the dongle is mobile. Health care workers in low-resource areas need only their phones, the dongle, and the disposable cartridges. Each screening takes about 15 minutes, and 41 patients can be screened with a single phone charge.
Second, the dongle is cheap, costing just $34 to produce. This is good news for everyone who’s ever been faced with a big medical bill, but it’s really great news for people in poorer communities. Cheap, mobile, fast, reliable medical testing could make the dongle an extremely important tool when diagnosing diseases in even the most remote places. The dongle can currently detect 15 different diseases.
Another team of researchers is currently developing an app that could, with the help of an attached microscopic lens, detect leukemia by looking at a blood sample. Just like the dongle, this could eventually provide a cheap, fast, reliable, and mobile means of medical testing that could make huge changes in developing countries.
Other researchers are developing diagnostic apps that don’t even require the use of attachments.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center recently considered the efficacy of a free app called PoopMD. The app is meant to be used by parents of newborns to screen their babies for biliary atresia. Biliary atresia (BA) is a rare disorder that can, if untreated, lead to liver failure. If detected within the first 60 days of birth, though, surgeons can repair the problems early enough that the newborn is less likely to need a future liver transplant.
The PoopMD app allows parents to take a picture of their baby’s stool. The app then analyzes the color of the stool to detect evidence of BA and, if necessary, alerts the parents to take the baby to the hospital right away. After being assessed by researchers at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, the app was deemed accurate.
In a study published in PLOS One, researchers presented a new app that can reliably measure the respiratory rate in about ten seconds. Health care workers currently measure the respiratory rate by counting a patient’s breaths for 60 seconds while using a stop watch. However, this app, developed with the intent of use in children, is much faster. Not only is a ten-second test much easier to carry out than a 60-second test when the patient is a squirming child, but the faster results could also make a big difference in children with respiratory issues who require treatment as soon as possible. It could also allow non-professionals, such as parents or guardians, to accurately check a child’s respiratory rate at home.
Another app in development utilizes the camera on a smartphone or tablet. By placing a patient’s finger on the camera lens, slight changes are detected to measure vital signs – heart rate, heart rhythm, respiration rate, and blood oxygen saturation. The vital signs are just as accurate as the results from standard monitoring methods today, but much faster and easier to obtain.
Between all the various forms of medical testing technology developed around smartphones, physicians may soon need nothing more than their phones to carry out routine tests.
Have you heard about any newly developed medical testing technology?
Image by CNBP via Flickr