First aid

Updated 11 March 2014

South Africans design diagnostic disc that could save lives

A newly-developed diagnostic tool, about the same size as a CD, can diagnose disease in minutes and save thousands of lives across the country. We talk to the inventor.

Imagine a disposable plastic disc – similar to a CD – that can perform complex disease diagnoses within minutes. Suzanne Hugo and her colleagues have presented a ‘lab-on-a-disc’ platform with the potential to make this possibility a reality.

The researchers final goal is to use only a small motor to operate the disc, resulting in a low-cost and portable device which requires only a single drop of blood to deliver an array of diagnostic test results at the point of care, or, alternatively, to provide rapid water-quality testing at the point of need.  

The disc contains tiny features in the form of channels and chambers to allow for minute volumes of fluid to be transported and manipulated.

This technology is known as microfluidics – more specifically centrifugal microfluidics – as movement of fluid inside the disc is achieved by the spinning of the disc.

Read: Diagnosing TB

The current platform enables discs to be designed and manufactured from plastic layers, then tested using a system that controls the speed and times at which the discs are spun.

We tracked down Suzanne Hugo (pictured below), Senior Engineer and Researcher at CSIR: MSM: Mechatronics and Micromanufacturing and asked her more about diagnostics on a disc.

Suzanne Hugo holds up the diagnostic disc that's set to make diagnosing disease so much quicker.

When will we see this technology in practice?

This depends strongly on the application and available research funding - for more simple, well-defined problems, solutions could be implemented in the next 2 years.

Solutions to more complex disease burdens will rely heavily on funding opportunities for the technology to be realised. Additionally, we would like to form strong partnerships with people directly linked to the health sector so that we can combine our engineering skills with health expertise.

Our co-authors at UCI (University of California, Irvine, USA) have also developed focused applications, so that this combined engineering expertise is available to bring solutions to market as quickly as possible.
What are the costs of manufacturing the discs and the motor to operate it? What kind of lab is required?
Currently, the discs typically cost R10 to manufacture, and the cost would obviously decrease substantially with mass production of devices. Any simple and small motor, similar to those found in CD drives, could be used to spin the disc.

In research and development that utilises samples such as blood or bacteria, a biosafety level 2 laboratory is required for handling pathogenic samples, and thus the current work is laboratory based.

The final product would be usable in any setting as the discs would be fully contained.

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Is there a lot of training required to use the discs, i.e. would it be used by GPs only, or could other health care workers use it as well?

The aim is to automate the technology as far as possible, so that it could be widely used, even by those with little or no medical training.
What diseases would one be able to identify using the tech? Is HIV one of them?

The possibilities are vast, but applications currently focus on blood tests, so HIV would be a strong consideration.

suzanne test
Suzanne tests a drop of fluid using the microfluidisc
What kind of fluids can be tested?

The fluids tested depend on the application, but in theory, anything could be used. Examples of fluids currently used include blood samples and various reagents, as well as water samples containing bacteria.
What is the significance for the developing world and will this tech be exported?

This technology has the potential to provide disease diagnosis at the point-of-care, which would be of particular benefit to rural areas and under-resourced settings, where facilities and trained healthcare workers are limited. Healthcare would become more accessible and reliable, with improved turn-around times and rapid results delivery.
Tell us a little about yourself, and how you became involved in this project?

I studied Electronic Engineering, and went on to complete my Masters in Bio-engineering at the University of Pretoria. This has given me the foundation to work on engineering solutions for medical and biological problems.

I work in the Mechatronics and Micro-manufacturing group at the CSIR, and specifically as part of the BioMEMS platform under the guidance of the platform leader, Kevin Land, where we develop a number of microfluidic technologies. 

My focus is on the design and development of microfluidic devices tailored to point-of-care healthcare applications.

The Diagnostics on a Disc work stemmed from a research collaboration between our group and the University of California, Irvine, USA, where I attended a research exchange program for a month in 2012 at Marc Madou's BioMEMS group to be able to establish and advance the lab-on-a-disc platform at the CSIR.
Anything else you’d like to add?

We are excited about finding collaborators and to secure funding to be able to advance this technology into a commercial healthcare solution. 

Read more:

What's new in TB technology
The risk factors of HIV
Current HIV testing

Images: supplied


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