A new manufacturing technique could be used to quickly build rapid diagnostic tools for a range of diseases. The technology was developed by researchers at the University of Bristol. They said it could accelerate development and uptake of on-chip diagnostic techniques, in parts of the world where rapid diagnoses are ‘desperately needed’ to improve public health, mortality and morbidity.
Microfluidic devices underpin lab-on-a-chip (LOC) technologies, which are developed to provide rapid diagnoses for the swift and effective treatment of many diseases.
The Bristol team developed an alternative method for producing the soft lithographic moulds used for fabricating microfluidic devices, which they said is ‘fast, reliable and cost-effective’. The open-source resources and simple, low-cost 3D printing could make fabrication of microfluidic devices ‘accessible and affordable’, they added.
The devices have channel dimensions equivalent to the width of a human hair, and the technique can print 1,000 scaffolds for 20p. The scaffolds have a ‘click and connect’ design, meaning ball-and-socket connector ends can be linked together to rapidly create more sophisticated microfluidic devices.
“Previously, techniques for producing the soft-lithographic scaffolds/moulds (microfluidic channel patterns) were time-consuming and extremely expensive, while other low-cost alternatives were prone to unfavourable properties,” said lead author Dr Robert Hughes.
“This development could put LOC prototyping into the hands of researchers and clinicians who know the challenges best, in particular those in resource-limited settings, where rapid diagnostics may often have the greatest impact.”
The researchers produced a number of open-source resources, including an open-source plug-in for Autodesk Fusion 360, 3D printer settings for optimum results, and a detailed protocol for the whole printing and fabrication process. The instructions and resources are available online.
Material extrusion printing was selected as the manufacturing method, thanks to its accessibility and ability to produce sub-millimetre dimensions when combined with a 0.1mm aftermarket nozzle.
Co-author Harry Felton said: “This technique is so simple, quick and cheap that devices can be fabricated using only everyday domestic or educational appliances and at a negligible cost… this means researchers and clinicians could use our technique and resources to help fabricate rapid medical diagnostic tools, quickly and cheaply, with minimal additional expertise or resources required.”
The team’s approach also makes the technique suitable for hobbyists and educational use, said co-author Andrea Diaz Gaxiola.
“It is our hope that this will democratise microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip technology, help to advance the development of point-of-care diagnostics, and inspire the next generation of researchers and clinicians in the field,” said Dr Hughes.
The researchers now aim to identify potential collaborators in research and education to help demonstrate the benefits of the technology.
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