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Microfluidics Puny PCR: HandyLab Tech Shrinks Reaction Size


It might sound clichéd, but it is often the grad students who do the work on research projects, or at least, “that’s what we’d like to believe,” laughs Sundaresh Brahmasandra, 30.

For him and fellow co-founder of HandyLab, Kalyan Handique, 29, a grad school research project resulted in the core technology around which they built their Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company in 2000. HandyLab develops microfluidic testing systems capable of performing PCR, rtPCR, nucleic acid testing and bioassays for clinical diagnostics in hospital settings and biodefense.

Their product stems from a multidisciplinary, NIH-funded project to develop an integrated DNA sequencing machine. To integrate and miniaturize the components, Brahmasandra and Handique first had to develop a technology to generate nanoliter-size droplets in situ and then figure out how to manipulate and use these miniaturized droplets to perform “meaningful reactions” such as PCR.

“We made one big device and chopped it right in the middle and gave one half to one team [microfluidics] and the other half to another. So there was no question whether these two would eventually fit together because they were originally parts of the same thing,” says Brahmasandra.

The HandyLab System, which was scheduled to complete pre-clinical trials at the University of Michigan in September, is the size of a phone, but its creators foresee smaller things in the next couple years. “Our ultimate goal is to have it as a hand-held machine,” says Brahmasandra.

The system uses air pockets to move the liquids around in microchannels. This feature enables them to miniaturize the pump itself on a small chip and eliminate the need to use previously purified samples. “We learned a lot from the mistakes that others had done,” says Brahmasandra.

The “lab on a chip” would consist of a Palm PC and a disposable cartridge with the sample inputs and reagents necessary to complete the reaction. Brahmasandra says their first model may require a special base system, but that eventually the system will be compatible with any Palm PC/Windows CE or “any system that is out there.” He predicts that using it would be “as simple as putting in a compact flash card.” Eventually, they envision the product being used in doctors’ offices with cartridges sold at drug stores, capitalizing on its small size and 20- to 30-minute test time.

— Dana Frisch


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