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Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Where nanotechnology and medicine meet: Researcher shrinks medical tests, makes them more affordable

Canadian University Press
Jan 3, 2012

University of Alberta oncology professor Linda Pilarski, along with her research team, has created a microfluidic chip that can test for up to 80 different genetic markers of cancer. (photo courtesy Dammika Manage)

In a rural medical office, only the bare minimum of medical technology is either affordable or practical, and doctors rely on their own diagnostic skills rather than the expensive tests that doctors at urban centres can more easily access.

This can become a problem when a patient appears whose symptoms could represent a bad flu, but could also be indicative of cancer. In the absence of proper equipment from which many urban doctors benefit, rural patients can be misdiagnosed or mistreated due to the impracticality of running the gamut of tests on them.

Linda Pilarski, a University of Alberta oncology professor and Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Nanotechnology, has been working since 1998 to change this.

Researchers have made great strides in diagnostic tools for detecting the genetic abnormalities that lead to or signal cancers, but many of these remain solely the province of experimental labs because of practical impediments like the cost of equipment.

Aiming specifically to make clinical medicine easier and less expensive to conduct, Pilarski and her team have created a microfluidic chip about the size of a thumbnail that can test for up to 80 different genetic markers of cancer.

“Most of the things we were doing were much too complicated to do in a clinical lab,” Pilarski said. “Their technology has to be far more regulated than what we’re doing in the lab. It may be feasible [to use current experimental tests] in a big research hospital, but not in Stony Plains, in our little health care centre, for example.

“And with tests that are feasible, they’re feasible only because they study many samples at once.”

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, for example, is a rare cancer that mostly affects children. When detected and treated early enough, it has an exceptionally high cure rate. But if left untreated, it can prove fatal in as little as a few weeks.
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