A new test kit developed by scientist can do a liver health check and deliver the results in 30 minutes, compared to a week which it takes with current tests.
If rolled out successfully in the next few years, the kit will shorten the wait and reduce worrying by patients with suspected liver diseases, such as cancer.
The kit, unveiled yesterday at a media briefing, is the brainchild of a research team from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) and the US-based Houston Methodist Hospital Research Institute, which is affiliated with Cornell University.
Current tests for liver toxicity - a common side effect for patients undergoing chemotherapy - require many steps and laboratory equipment, as it involves freezing and grinding liver tissue samples.
This usually takes a few days, as the samples pass from department to department. Results may also be affected by human error.
However, the scientists are confident that their kit, which they hope to develop into a palm-sized prototype within the next five years, can quicken the process without compromising accuracy. "Our new method significantly reduces time, manpower and costs and yet has the same accurate results as the gold standards of current liver toxicity tests," said Professor Joseph Chang from the NTU VIRTUS Centre of Excellence in Integrated Circuit Design at NTU's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
There are two key components in the kit. The first grinds and cleans and extracts DNA from the liver tissue sample, while the second runs various tests on a purified blood sample. These tests can identify three biomarkers (genes) for liver toxicity. After five years of work, the scientists have successfully used the two chips in the kit to detect liver toxicity.
The next step, said A*Star's Dr Wang Zhiping, director of research programmes at SIMTech, is to integrate both of them into the "lab-in-a-needle" prototype.
The team also hopes to equip the kit with the ability to test for at least 10 biomarkers for more accurate results, which can indicate other liver issues ranging from liver cancer to alcohol abuse.
The prototype looks like a syringe, and will be able to take liver tissue samples, prepare them for testing, evaluate toxicity and show the results in one simple process.
Dr Yim Heng Boon, gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said the kit was useful, although he added that it should be "fairly comprehensive in its range of toxins to be tested, and yet adequately sensitive and specific". He said: "To maximise the benefits, it would be ideal to make this test kit reasonably priced and easily available."