University of Washington, Seattle, scientists and engineers are developing a low-cost device that could help pathologists diagnose pancreatic cancer earlier and faster. The prototype can perform the basic steps for processing a biopsy, relying on fluid transport instead of human hands to process the tissue, they say. The team presented its initial results at the SPIE Photonics West conferenceand filed a patent for this first-generation device and future technology advancements.

Microfluidic device has curved and straight channels.

The new instrumentation would essentially automate and streamline the manual, time-consuming process a pathology lab goes through to diagnose cancer. Instead of sending a tissue sample to lab to be cut into thin slices, stained, and put on slides, then analyzed optically in 2D for abnormalities, the new technology would process and analyze whole tissue biopsies in 3D imaging, which offers a more complete picture of the cellular makeup of a tumor, they say.

The research team is building a thick, credit card-sized, flexible device out of silicon that allows a piece of tissue to pass through tiny channels and undergo a series of steps that replicate what happens on a much larger scale in a pathology lab. The device harnesses the properties of microfluidics, which allows tissue to move and stop with ease through small channels without needing to apply a lot of external force. It also keeps clinicians from having to handle the tissue; instead, a tissue biopsy taken with a syringe needle could be deposited directly into the device to begin processing.

Researchers say this is the first time material larger than a single-celled organism has successfully moved in a microfluidic device. This could have implications across the sciences in automating analyses that usually are done by humans.