Category: lab-on-a-chip

A New Device Lets You Conduct an Ultrasound With a Smartphone

A Bit of AI and iQ

Entrepreneurial engineer Jonathan Rothberg suddenly became popular and rich after he made the world’s first DNA sequencer on a chip called the Ion Torrent back in 2011. In the years since then, Rothberg founded and led a new startup called Butterfly Network, which recently unveiled a new device called the iQ, which is equipped with an artificial intelligence (AI) that allows you to perform an ultrasound with a smartphone.

Essentially, the iQ is a lab-on-a-chip medical imaging tool that make ultrasounds accessible to all. You don’t need to be a lab technician to figure out how to operate the iQ. It simply attaches to an iPhone’s lightning jack, and its machine learning algorithms help the user find what he or she is looking for.

Image Credit: Screen shot from Butterfly Network, Inc.

The iQ is also revolutionizing a more than 40-year-old technology. Almost all regular ultrasounds use compressed charged crystals or ceramics to send out a sound, pick up an echo, and calculate distance to form an image — pretty much like how bats navigate.

For the iQ, Butterfly’s engineers replaced these crystals with capacitive micromachine ultrasound transducers (CMUTs). These are rows of incredibly tiny drums that vibrate at a range of frequencies when a current is run through them, depending on the electrical power.

Butterly combined this technology with algorithms originally designed for bundling data from thousands of telescopes together to image the cosmos, developed by physicist Max Tegmark and Nevada Sanchez. The latter co-founded the Butterfly Network with Rothberg.

To keep the iQ’s final design as compact as possible, the engineers bonded CMUTs directly onto a semiconductor layer, doing away with wiring. These layers contain all the needed signal processors and amplifiers that convert sound into images, according to a report by Wired

A Radical Diagnostic Tool

A number of people assume that getting an ultrasound is only for pregnant women, as it remains the most popular method of checking the health of unborn babies. So, why bother with a pocket ultrasound, right? In reality, this is hardly the case. Aside from checking on fetuses, ultrasound is an effective imaging tool for examining internal organs in the body — hence Butterfly’s slogan, “Whole body imaging. Under $2k.”

Granted, the images it produces are not as clear as those from higher intensity imaging machines like an MRI or a CT scan. Nevertheless, an ultrasound can be useful, especially if getting one doesn’t require you to visit the nearest medical lab.

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According to the Butterly Network’s official website, the iQ has received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be used for diagnostic imaging covering 13 clinical applications, which include heart scans for both adults and children, pregnancy exams, musculo-skeletal tests, and even for urinary tract checks.

While we may be accustomed to these kinds of procedures being relegated exclusively to the domain of doctors and technicians, Butterfly’s chief medical officer John Martin argues that giving people the ability to perform an ultrasound with a smartphone is simply taking us one step further in our journey towards self-directed health monitoring. “Thermometers once lived only inside hospitals. And blood pressure cuffs, and defibrillators,” Martin told WIRED. Martin was able to use the iQ to spot a growing cancer mass under his own throat, which has since been removed.

While, for now, the iQ can only be preordered by licensed healthcare providers, Martin hopes that it can soon be available to all. “The sooner we can put smart technologies in the hands of people at home, the sooner the right diagnosis can be made. I’ve yet to find a disease state where earlier detection didn’t lead to better outcomes. And I’m living proof of that,” Martin added.

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Scientists Want to Make This Medical Device From a Classic Sci-Fi Show a Reality

The Tricorder XPRIZE

In April 2017, the winners of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE were announced: out of more than 300 teams, Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group were the two whose devices got us closest to where no one has gone before. The contest was inspired by the medical “tricorder” from the original Star Trek series, a handheld device that could check vitals and diagnose a host of diseases by simply being swept in front of the patient. This vision of the future  — with no invasive tests and fast, accurate results — has now ushered in actual technological advances outside the realm of science fiction.

The work of both prizewinning teams focused on integrating multiple technologies into a single device. According to the judges, both devices almost met the contest benchmarks for accurately diagnosing 13 different diseases including anemia, diabetes, lung disease, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections. In fact, these two winners come closest to combining the many functionalities of the original tricorder featured in a single, handheld diagnostic system.

Final Frontier Medical Devices and Basil Leaf Technologies won first prize with their DxtER device. This is actually an AI-equipped iPad that uses non-invasive sensors to collect data about body chemistry, biological functions, and vital signs. The second place prize went to Dynamical Biomarkers Group, who produced three wireless handheld test modules: the Smart Blood-Urine Test Kit, the Smart Vital-Sense Monitor, and the Smart Scope Module. These modules connect to a smartphone and analyze blood, urine, skin appearance, and vital signs.

Image Credit: Bobbie Johnson/WikiCommonsImage Credit: Bobbie Johnson/WikiCommons

Instant Handheld Diagnostics

So, are we gaining on the real tricorder? Definitely — but there are still some hurdles we need to clear. For example, while devices for monitoring vital signs are very advanced, processing the data they collect requires software, and this is where the single handheld device has a problem. Similarly, imaging devices are rapidly improving —but again, to provide accurate assessments of images you need pattern recognition software.

Advances in lab-on-a-chip technologies have already simplified remote diagnostics and made them less invasive. Current research is focusing on using microfluidics to analyze the tiniest amounts of interstitial fluid and sweat — thus eliminating the need for painful, inconvenient, and occasionally dangerous blood draws for sampling biological fluids. Meanwhile, scientists have created a portable DNA sequencer, which could help diagnose genetic disorders, and a “cancer detector” that uses microwaves to work without even touching the skin. However, no one has found a way to make this technology completely handheld and integrated with all of the other kinds of technologies that would be needed to create a true tricorder.

A real tricorder breakthrough would mean diagnostic ability in the field, giving doctors working in underserved areas of the world a powerful new weapon against disease and other public health issues. It would also be a major breakthrough for military personnel and first responders. So while the actual device isn’t in hand right now, we have all the puzzle pieces we need to make it a reality — we just need to fit them all together. When we do, accurate and potentially lifesaving medical diagnoses will be a few seconds away.

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“Lab-on-a-Chip” Wearable Technology Could Help Detect Disease

Personalized Medicine

We’ve become accustomed to having many services personalized: information can be delivered to us through our smartphone, even according to our specific preferences. Our daily commute to work has become personalized thanks to ride-hailing services like Uber. And in terms of our online social lives, even dating apps can provide more personalized options than ever before. All of this catering to our preference for preference has been made possible through technology. Now, engineers from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rutgers University-New Brunswick want to extend this kind of personalized service to medicine.

The Rutgers engineers have invented a new kind of “lab-on-a-chip,” a biosensor that fits multiple functions that have traditionally required the use of a laboratory into one electrical chip. Their device, which the engineers described in detail in the journal Lab on a Chip, can analyze sweat or blood in order to detect multiple biomarkers linked to several diseases.

“One biomarker is often insufficient to pinpoint a specific disease because of the heterogeneous nature of various types of diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and inflammatory disease,” researcher Mehdi Javanmard said in a press release. “To get an accurate diagnosis and accurate management of various health conditions, you need to be able to analyze multiple biomarkers at the same time.”

A Wearable Lab

Lab-on-a chip devices are innovative because they compress a number of functions typically tasked to larger, bulkier instruments into much smaller technology. The invention by engineers at Rutgers took the capabilities of current state-of-the-art lab technology and transplanted them onto a chip that can be affixed to wearable devices.

The device electronically barcodes microparticles to identify them, and the first time this barcoding technique is fully electronic — which is what allowed researchers to shrink the biosensors to fit on microchips. “This is really important in the context of personalized medicine or personalized health monitoring,” Javanmard said. “Our technology enables true labs on chips. We’re talking about platforms the size of a USB flash drive or something that can be integrated onto an Apple Watch, for example, or a Fitbit.”

Javanmard and his colleagues are also working on a version that can be placed in portable devices and detect microparticles in other objects. This tool, the team said, could be commercially available within the next two years, and the wearable medical biosensor could be out within the next five years. Currently, the lab-on-a-chip was shown to be more than 95 percent accurate in identifying biomarkers. That’s certainly impressive, but the team isn’t done yet: they’re fine-tuning the instrument to reach 100 percent accuracy.

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Scientists Have Created a Totally New Type of Laser With Light and Water Waves

Of Waves and Lightwaves

There’s a new kid in town with respect to laser technology. Researchers at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology have developed laser emissions through the interaction of light and water waves, combining two areas of study previously thought unrelated.

Typically, lasers are produced by exciting electrons in atoms using energy from an outside source. This excitement causes the electrons to emit radiation as laser light. The Technion team, led by Tal Carmon, discovered that wave oscillations in a liquid device can produce laser radiation as well, according to the study published in Nature Photonics.

This possibility had never been explored previously, Carmon told Phys.org, primarily due to enormous differences in frequencies between water waves on a liquid’s surface and light wave oscillations. The former have a low frequency of approximately 1,000 oscillations per second, while the latter have a higher frequency of around 1014 oscillations per second.

The researchers built a device that used an optical fiber to deliver light into a small droplet of octane and water. It compensated for the otherwise low efficiency between light waves and water waves, allowing the two types to pass through each other approximately 1 million times within the droplet. The energy generated by this interaction leaves the droplet as the laser emission.

Credits: The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology
Credits: The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology

Greater Control

This interaction between light and fluid happens on a scale smaller than the width of a human hair. Additionally, water is a million times softer than typical materials used in existing laser technology. Accordingly, the Technion researchers say the droplet deformation caused by this very small pressure from the the light is a million times greater than what’s seen in current optomechanical devices, so this laser tech would be easier to control.

Because they would work on such a small scale and be easier to control, this new type of laser could open up a wealth of possibilities for tiny sensors that use a combination of light waves, water waves, and sound waves. They could be used on tiny ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technologies, enabling researchers to more effectively study microscopic cells and test different drug therapies that could lead to better healthcare down the road. Indeed, these tiny lasers could have big implications in the world of technology.

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