Plastic chips the size of flash cards may quickly and accurately diagnose AIDS and cancer in near future

In the not-too-distant future, plastic chips the size of flash cards may quickly and accurately diagnose diseases such as AIDS and cancer, as well as detect toxins and pathogens in the environment. Such lab-on-a-chip technology — known as microfluidics — works by flowing fluid such as blood through microscopic channels etched into a polymer’s surface. Scientists have devised ways to manipulate the flow at micro- and nanoscales to detect certain molecules or markers that signal disease. MIT’s David Hardt heads the Center for Polymer Microfabrication — a multidisciplinary research group funded by the Singapore-MIT Alliance — which is designing manufacturing processes for microfluidics from the ground up.

The group is analyzing the behavior of polymers under factory conditions, building new tools and machines to make polymer-based chips at production levels, and designing quality-control processes to check a chip’s integrity at submicron scales — all while minimizing the cost of manufacturing. Microfluidic devices have the potential to be fast, cheap and portable diagnostic tools. But for the most part, the technology hasn’t yet made it to the marketplace. While scientists have made successful prototypes in the laboratory, microfluidic devices — particularly for clinical use — have yet to be manufactured on a wider scale.

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