Singapore scientists develop rapid test for liver toxicity

A biopsy needle (with yellow liquid) currently used to extract liver tissue, pictured next to the two microfluidic chips.
A biopsy needle (with yellow liquid) currently used to extract liver tissue, pictured next to the two microfluidic chips. PHOTO: NTU
How researchers envision the prototype to look. It is estimated to be developed within the next five years.
How researchers envision the prototype to look. It is estimated to be developed within the next five years. PHOTO: NTU

SINGAPORE - Scientists here have developed a way of testing for liver toxicity in just an hour, shortening the wait for results that usually take days.

When rolled out clinically, this could benefit cancer patients by quickly detecting liver toxicity, a common side effect of chemotherapy.

Obtaining results more quickly will also aid doctors in discussing treatment options with patients, without waiting several days.

The discovery, unveiled at a media briefing on Wednesday, is the brainchild of a research team from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) and the United States-based Houston Methodist Hospital Research Institute, which is affiliated with Cornell University.

Current tests for liver toxicity require multiple steps, such as freezing and grinding tissue in a laboratory, which usually take days and require the use of laboratory equipment. Results also take several days and are prone to human error.

But scientists are now working on developing a palm-sized prototype that looks like a syringe. Touted as a "lab-in-a-needle", the new compact kit can take patient samples, prepare them for testing, evaluate toxicity and display the results in one simple process.

The prototype aims to miniaturise a test lab into the size of a needle, which would allow doctors to get more accurate results without waiting for lengthy lab procedures. In this form, the test is expected to take just 30 minutes.

It will have two key components, or chips: the first extracts and cleans the required test sample from the blood, while the second chip runs the various tests on the purified blood sample. They use biomarkers (genes) for liver toxicity.

The scientists have successfully used both these chips to detect liver toxicity. The next step is to integrate both of them into the "lab-in-a-needle" prototype.

Dr Wang Zhiping, director of Research Programmes at A*Star's SIMTech, said: "Our next steps are to integrate the sample preparation and analysis chips into a miniaturised device to create the first full prototype of the lab-in-a-needle.

"A*Star's SIMTech will tap on its manufacturing process capabilities to develop the 'lab-in-a-needle' device cost-effectively and such that it can be scaled up for mass production. This will enable the mobile technology to be expanded to test for a number of health conditions in outpatient settings or outside hospitals."

Another scientist involved in the project, Professor Joseph Chang from the NTU VIRTUS Centre of Excellence in Integrated Circuit Design at NTU's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, said: "What our prototype shows is that samples can be prepared and analysed through it, eliminating the need for wet laboratory work and manpower.

"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."

audreyt@sph.com.sg