Bioengineers with the University of California at Berkeley have developed a heating and cooling system to significantly shorten the time it takes to obtain deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) results.
By tweaking the process, researchers have opened a wide array of possibilities for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
These tests are vital in genomics applications and are used for a wide variety of purposes, such as paternity tests, forensic analysis and cloning. Traditionally, the PCR test can take hours, because the process needs a lot of heating and cooling, which up to now could only be done in a lab.
The team shoots LED light at an ultra-thin film of gold, which energizes the electrons floating at the surface of the film. The excited electrons start oscillating and emitting heat, but as soon as the light turns off, the heating stops and the electrons cool down.
The turbocharged thermal cycling was described in the journal Light: Science & Applications this month.
Senior author and UC Berkeley professor of bioengineering Luke Lee said the research began with the aim of producing integrated diagnostics for developing countries by shortening the processing time and cutting costs to a bare minimum.
In case of an infectious outbreak, checking patients in a matter of minutes can help stop possible pandemics, like check-ups at airports. As the disposable plastic chip being used is only worth half a U.S. dollar, the researchers believe it will be easily accessible for labs, governments or individuals.
Lee noted that "we're not talking only about illnesses or genetics, but also how people would be able to tell if the water they are drinking is contaminated."
Thousands of DNA biomarkers can be integrated in the plastic chip, to check for specific data that requires monitoring. "We can create chips that can target certain environmental biomarkers, to help with agriculture, or food consumption. There are almost no limits to what biomarkers we can put in the chip."
The team will start manufacturing these DNA plastic chips soon, and they are confident they will be made available for medical and public use in two years.