University of Toronto LogoScientists at the University of Toronto have developed a latest ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technique which analyses tiny samples of blood and breast tissue. This analysis may assist in identifying women who are at risk of breast cancer much more quickly than ever before.

In response to this challenge, an interdisciplinary group of U of T scientists were believed to have used a novel technology called digital microfluidics. Digital microfluidics is known to be a technology where minute droplets of fluid appear to be controlled electrically on the surface of a microchip instead of moving electrons across tiny wires.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Noha Mousa, a Canadian Institute of Health Research fellow at Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute and a clinical fellow in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Toronto says “The concentration of the hormone estrogen and its metabolites — the products of metabolized estrogen — in breast tissue are known to be significantly increased in breast cancer patients compared to healthy women, and is therefore believed to increase the risk of breast cancer.”

Mousa further stated that, “Despite this, breast estrogen levels in women at risk are not routinely measured because conventional techniques require large tissue samples obtained through invasive biopsies.”

Aaron Wheeler, director of the Wheeler Microfludics lab in the Department of Chemistry, stated that, “We applied this technique for the first time to analyze hormones in tiny clinical samples — we looked at blood, serum and breast cancer tissue.”

“We developed methods to move droplets of several different kinds of reagents — a substance consumed during a chemical reaction — to extract hormones and purify them — all on a device that can fit into the palm of a hand,” continues Wheeler.

Wheeler further elucidated that, “The new methods we’ve developed may someday facilitate routine screening of clinical samples for analysis of hormones. This may be useful in many applications, including screening for risk of developing breast cancer, especially in high-risk populations, and monitoring the response to antiestrogen breast cancer therapies such as aromatase inhibitors.”

“It could also help in monitoring hormone levels in infertility treatments and in detecting illegal doping in athletes,” he adds.

Since these devices could possibly be used to incorporate multiple different laboratory functions, this type of technology is at times called a ‘lab-on-a-chip’.