22 Mar COVID-19 pandemic: Potential of the microfluidics technology as a tool for rapid diagnostics
COVID-19 is now announced pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) causing many countries to declare emergency state and shutdown public places. Diagnostic tools can play a key role in decreasing the spreading rate and controlling the virus. Microfluidics has the potential to offer rapid and affordable point-of-care diagnostic tools to help in this condition. But first, let’s take a look at the features of this virus.
What are coronavirus and COVID-19?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause illness in humans and animals. This family of viruses is called corona since they look like a crown under the microscope. Coronaviruses can cause infections in the respiratory system in humans. Two of the well-known members of this family can lead to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The most recent member of this family causes the Corona Virus Disease also known as COVID-19.
How is COVID-19 diagnosed?
According to the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), clinicians based on the signs and symptoms, epidemiology, and travel history of the patients, are encouraged to collect samples, including a sample of saliva (sputum), a nasal swab and a throat swab, to send to a lab for testing. The test includes a Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) of the sample and currently can take a few days to complete.
Why is it important to have a rapid diagnostics method?
Rapid detection is of crucial importance in a pandemic. Thousands of new cases are being tested every day that puts a heavy burden on laboratories. Rapid detection can reduce the number of unnecessary visits to the health clinics and will help the health sector to save lives by treating the patients with positive test results. Additionally, it reduces the risk of spreading the virus while one is waiting for the results or is uncertain about his/her conditions. Currently, there are rapid tests available for some viruses that can lead to a result in 30 minutes. Similar tests could take the burden off the shoulders of the laboratories and health clinics if available for COVID-19.
How can microfluidic technology help in the COVID-19 pandemic?
As mentioned above, a rapid diagnostics tool is of paramount importance at the time of a pandemic. It is of note that it can take up to around 2 weeks from the time of infection for the symptoms to be observable. This gives a potentially infected person enough time to spread the virus to 2.2 other individuals on average. To this, we should also add the time it takes for the laboratory to generate the results and return it to the patient and the hospitals. A desirable point-of-care diagnosis device for COVID-19 should have the following features:
- Quick sample-to-result turnaround
- Clinically relevant limit of detection
Microfluidics devices are well-suited for point-of-care diagnostics. Microfluidic chips are associated with handling a tiny amount of fluid in micron-scale channels and chambers. These characteristics along with the high surface to volume ratios allow researchers to handle less amount of samples and reagents with higher efficiencies and generate results faster than conventional methods.
Microfluidic PCR chips which have been extensively developed for detecting pathogens such as viruses or bacteria, could offer a viable solution here because, if properly designed, they can get close to a traditional laboratory RT-PCR workflow. Additionally, they require less volume of reagents that in turn reduces the cost. Cost is crucial at this stage since the virus is spreading worldwide and has just started to affect developing countries with less resources available to them. Unavailability of affordable diagnostics tools can speed spreading the virus stressing health systems.
All in all, the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of the significance of a rapid and reliable point-of-care diagnosis tool. The spreading of the virus could ramp down if we had such tools in hand for rapid testing of the virus. It could also decrease the visits to the hospitals and work-load of the laboratories resulting in more space and enhanced treatment for the patients and saving more lives. Microfluidics has the potential to be used as a diagnostic tool in this context. We are still in the first stages of this pandemic and might have other pandemics threatening us in the future. Therefore, we have to use our full technological and scientific potential for defeating such cases. Biomedical and researchers are highly encouraged to look into the potentials of microfluidic technology in this regard.
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Pouriya is a microfluidic production engineer at uFluidix. He received his B.Sc. and M.A.Sc. both in Mechanical Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology and York University, respectively. During his master's studies, he had the chance to learn the foundations of microfluidic technology at ACUTE Lab where he focused on designing microfluidic platforms for cell washing and isolation. Upon graduation, he joined uFluidix to even further enjoy designing, manufacturing, and experimenting with microfluidic chips. In his free time, you might find him reading a psychology/philosophy/fantasy book while refilling his coffee every half an hour. Is there a must-read book in your mind, do not hesitate to hit him up with your to-read list.