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'Lab on a Chip' set to revolutionise chemical analysis

Friday 15 May 1998

A research team based at the Zeneca/SmithKline Beecham Centre for Analytical Sciences at Imperial College, London, has developed a chemical amplifier measuring 42mm by 34mm and has demonstrated its potential to perform complex chemical reactions at ultra-high speed. A report of their innovation is published tomorrow in the journal Science.

In tests, a gene fragment in the microchip amplifier went through a 20-cycle amplification in total reaction times of 90 seconds to 18.7 minutes. This compares with the same gene fragment amplified by an existing fast commercial thermal cycler in a time of 50 minutes.

The team chose the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) [see notes to editors 2] as a test for their new chemical amplification technique. PCR is a perfect model reaction for a chemical amplifier to tackle but the new chip could equally be applied to amplify a number of known reactions such as self-activating enzymatic reactions, cyclic electrochemical reactions and other polymerisations.

The microchip acts like a conventional electronic amplifier in that amplification is continuous and independent of input concentration.

Dr Andrew de Mello, one of the authors of the paper, said: "The applications of this technology will revolutionise chemical analysis and production over the next decade in the same way as the microchip did for electronics."

A further advantage of this continuous flow PCR 'lab-on-a-chip' is that cross-contamination of chemicals is far less of a problem than in a stationary tube format. The benefit to users is that the PCR chip may be reused for longer periods without cleaning.

According to the authors, this technology could be standard in hospitals and surgeries within 10 years, helping medical professionals test and make diagnoses. For example, the amplification and monitoring of a specific gene could show the patient's ability to metabolise a given drug so as to determine the ideal course of therapy.

"The potential for such 'labs-on-a-chip' is vast. This miniaturised analysis system will completely change the way of doing chemistry" said Dr de Mello.

For further information please contact:

Dr Martin Kopp - 0171-594 5866
Dr Andrew de Mello - 0171-594 5820
Professor Andreas Manz - 0171-594 5838
Susie Renshaw, Imperial College Press Office - 0171-594 6701

Notes to editors

  • The paper "Chemical Amplification: Continuous-Flow PCR on a Chip" is published in Science Vol 280, 15 May 1998. The authors of the paper are Dr Martin Kopp, Dr Andrew de Mello and Professor Andreas Manz.
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is a technique for rapidly producing many copies of a fragment of DNA for diagnostic or research purposes.
  • The Zeneca/SmithKline Beecham Centre for Analytical Chemistry, opened in 1995, as a joint research initiative between Imperial College and the two companies. The research at the centre concentrates on the theoretical understanding of analytical science and separation science, disciplines which are of vital importance to research and development pharmaceutical companies.
  • Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine is an independent constituent college of the University of London. Founded in 1907, the College teaches a full range of science, engineering, medical and management disciplines at the highest level. The concentration and strength of Imperial's research in science, engineering and medicine gives the College a unique and internationally distinctive research presence. Imperial College was recently rated second overall in the Financial Times Guide to Britain's top 100 universities (Financial Times 29 April 1998).