Imagine worrying that you’re showing possible symptoms of diabetes, cancer, cardiac disease or Alzheimer’s.

Now imagine that instead of spending a restless night poring over medical websites and waiting anxiously for a doctor’s visit, you could simply pull out a device that took a miniscule droplet of blood and analyzed it in minutes.

If the results came back negative, it would be instant peace of mind.

Lab-on-a-Chip technology fits in the palm of your hand

Lab-on-a-chip-or-BioChip-devicesSuch a pre-screening device, based on Lab-on-a-Chip (LOC) technology, would need only nanolitres of biomedical material, fit in the palm of your hand and function as an early warning to check in with a doctor.

Although it sounds like something straight out of science fiction, a mechanical and mechatronics engineering professor at the University of Waterloo is working hard to make it a reality.

Lab on a chip technology Carolyn Ren waterloo engineeringCarolyn Ren – a Canada Research Chair in Droplet Microfluidics and Lab-on-a-Chip Technology, as well as director of the Waterloo Microfluidics Lab – is leading a team with expertise in physics, engineering and biochemistry to better understand how to create technology that transports, mixes and analyzes tiny amounts of material.

She says she’s committed to exploring technology that pharmaceutical researchers and biochemists can rely on.

“My technology development is really to make their lives better so they can go on to make things that can serve people,” she says.

A LOC is typically created from a small piece of glass or polymer that moves microscopic volumes of liquid through nano-sized channels. With the help of electrodes and sensors, the device can quickly and cheaply scrutinize, say, biomarkers in blood, or chemical contaminants in water – saving time by eliminating the need to send material off to a traditional lab.

Home-testing will improve efficiency of diagnosis and treatment

Ren explains that using the platform to create a home-use, pre-screening medical device could be a major step in reducing the burden on those traditional labs, too. With fewer exploratory samples to test, they would be able to diagnose patients faster. People could then, conceivably, receive treatment faster as well.

“Our focus here is to develop a portable device that everybody can use, even if they’re not a professional,” she says.

Developing the complex technology is hardly an easy task, which is why Ren believes the University of Waterloo is one of the best educational institutions in Canada for her research. Cross-appointments of faculty within her department mean an expert in a particular field is only a walk down the hall or an email away.

“We have a lot of different expertise and facilities, which allow me to develop the systems so quickly,” she explains. “I’ve got almost everything I want right here.”