A handheld DNA analyser the size of a portable DVD player could soon allow emergency medical personnel to identify diseases instantly.
The inventors believe that the device could help doctors quickly identify the best course of treatment based on a patient's genetic make up. Similar devices have been proposed for anti-terrorism and forensics.
A prototype of the DNA analyser has been built and tested successfully by nanoelectronics researchers at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).
The device works by shining a semiconductor laser onto a sample, such as a tiny drop of blood, and measuring the light emitted. A small amount of fluorescent liquid is then added to the sample to mark DNA molecules.
The sample flows through a microchannel in the surface of a biochip, where an electrical field spreads out molecules of different sizes making them easy to identify.
The basic analysis of a sample takes approximately two minutes, according to the researchers.
"Our device paves the way for high-speed point-of-care bio-analysis, such as for operations in hospitals or emergency medical treatment in ambulances and at disaster sites," an AIST spokesperson said in a statement.
All the key components, including the laser, can be mounted on the same chip. The compact size of the device, which combines the laser and sensor in the same unit, will make it much easier to deploy, according to the inventors.
A similar analyser would otherwise require a large laser and an optical path about a metre long, making the device the size of a large suitcase.
Ultimately, it will be possible to fabricate an entire DNA analyser onto a chip in a single manufacturing process, the inventors predict.
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