The promise of microfluidics and rapid testing

How the precision handling micro amounts of fluids is making rapid testing of infectious diseases possible.

By Andrew Bolwell, Global Head of HP Tech Strategy and Ventures — September 17, 2020

The global crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus has changed the way we work, go to school, commute, and live our daily lives. The road back to normalcy, or at least a “new norm,” will not be an easy one, but it begins with rapid, cost-effective, widespread testing that can be used to screen people going back to work to ensure they are not infected. It's critical to test for both the active virus to determine who is sick, and the resulting antibodies to identify who has had the virus and is potentially immune. 

According to research from Harvard’s Safra Center, it’s estimated that 2% to 6% of the U.S. population — between five and 20 million people — would need to be tested daily for the virus. That’s a massive undertaking when you consider that, as of mid-September, 89 million tests had been conducted overall.

Current testing is still relatively limited, and the processing is sometimes lengthy. Most testing to detect the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) associated with COVID-19 currently requires test kit samples to be sent to a lab, with transit times of up to 24 hours. Once at the lab, testing for the virus is time-consuming and labor-intensive, sometimes stretching six hours from start to finish. People are left waiting days for the results. Capacity for testing and the necessary supplies are also limited. While some large hospitals have in-house labs to perform these tests, they can only process a fraction of what commercial labs can handle; commercial labs, in turn, involve ever-longer wait times due to increased demand.

What if we could move testing closer to the patient and reduce processing from days or hours to minutes? At-home, in-office, or point-of-care rapid diagnostic tests would allow large swaths of the workforce to know if they are virus-free and okay to go back to work, or students to know if they are okay to return to the classroom. Microfluidics technology could make that happen.

From the lab to the living room

In the simplest of terms, microfluidics is the ability to handle fluids (like fluid collected with a nasal swab or a patient’s cells) at a micro level and with great precision, thus shrinking multiple lab functions down into a small, portable format. Microfluidics technology has great potential for healthcare diagnostics, agriculture, forensics, water testing, and environmental screening. Portability, speed, affordability, and high precision make microfluidics testing ideal for situations like the current pandemic. Small, lightweight molecular testing devices can enable diagnostics at the point-of-care, in the office, or even at home, reducing test-result time from days to minutes.

We might soon see scalable, rapid point-of-care testing that would allow us to resume our normal lives in a post-pandemic way.

Around the globe, universities, scientists, and companies are racing to develop rapid field tests for COVID-19 using microfluidics. University of Michigan researchers are working on microfluidics-based antibody tests. Stanford researchers are exploring adapting microfluidics tests for tuberculosis to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. UK-based Dolomite Microfluidics and Mologic is collaborating on point-of-need detection testing. In fact, the FDA has approved some point-of-care testing for emergency use from companies such as Cepheid, Mesa Biotech, and Abbott Laboratories. However, some current solutions are less than ideal, as they require specialized equipment and technical expertise and are limited in how many people they can test at a time.

Micro expertise

While many people may not realize it, HP is a world leader in microfluidics. HP has invested many billions of dollars in research and development, as well as capital equipment, over the past three decades to create the world’s largest digital printing company. The underlying technology developed by HP for printing can place something as small as one-fifth the size of a human cell exactly where we want it, and precisely pump fluids in picoliters — about 0.001% the size of a raindrop. All this provides the foundation to extend this technology into new domains. 

HP’s Specialty Printing Systems team is looking at a variety of microfluidics applications to leverage our deep expertise, from non-invasive biopsies of cancer cells to research applications focused on cancer treatment, “printing” pharmaceutical samples, and antibody testing. The team recently worked with the CDC on a program to accelerate the testing of new antibiotics designed to fight antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is a significant health challenge. In the United States alone, at least 2.8 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection every year, and more than 35,000 people die from it.

“Bacteria continuously develop new ways to resist antibiotics — once a drug is approved for use, the countdown begins until resistance emerges. In fact, resistance has even been detected before FDA approval,” explains Dr. Jean Patel, microbiologist and former science lead for the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network. “To save lives and protect people, it is vital to make technology accessible to hospital labs nationwide.”

HP and partner Tecan, a leading global provider of automated laboratory instruments and solutions, are aiming to help researchers in personalized medicine, therapy development, and virus testing develop effective solutions even faster. This could be of great help to universities and pharma companies around the globe racing to find effective solutions for the pandemic.

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Precise and reliable dispensing helps scientists in researching new antibiotics, cell-based assays, enzyme profiles, and other rapid testing.

“I think the D300e technology is incredibly relevant given the COVID-19 crisis,” explains Dr. Klaus Lun, executive vice president and head of the Life Sciences Business for Tecan. “The types of tests that are happening today in the clinical setting are analyzing whether or not a patient has contracted the new coronavirus. On the research side, using this technology to miniaturize the overall reaction volume and increase throughput will enable a broader analysis of different strains of viruses to identify potential treatments.”

The future of testing in place

As microfluidics continue to expedite virological and epidemiological research and diagnostics, we might soon see scalable, rapid point-of-care testing that would allow us to resume our normal lives in a post-pandemic way.

Imagine a point-of-need test based on microfluidics technology that can determine infection in 15 minutes or less. No larger than a printer, it could be distributed to hospitals, doctors’ offices, airports, cruise ships, manufacturing sites, warehouses, offices, schools, and even homes for quick, precise testing and wellness monitoring.

Technicians might arrive at the entrance to an auto factory and be tested and notified within a brief 15-minute wait before they are cleared to work on the line. Airline travelers could experience a similar test before they clear TSA. Employees, clients and vendors could be tested before entering office buildings or convention halls.

The faster we can affordably test large portions of our population, the sooner we can get on with our lives.


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