FORENSIC analysis at the scenes of crime normally involves investigations
by numerous scientists and laboratories that typically take weeks.
But Dr Andrew de Mello's Micromixer glass chip (nicknamed the
``Lilliput laboratory'') contains what appears to be an entire laboratory
the size of a thumbnail capable of carrying out all the tasks in
a matter of minutes.
A chemist in the research team based at the Zeneca SmithKline
Beecham Centre for Analytical Sciences at London's Imperial College,
Dr de Mello said that carrying out a biological or chemical analysis
involves getting the chemical into an instrument, filtering out
the contaminants and then carrying out the reactive test.
His Lilliput laboratory, has a maze of channels 50 hundredths
of a millimetre wide etched on a minuscule piece of glass that is
sandwiched between two other pieces of glass.
Chemicals used in the reaction process are injected using miniature
pumps. Once the chemicals are mixed, applying an electric field
can separate products. In response, molecules of different size
travel through the channels at different speeds allowing them to
be captured separately.
Tiny spots of blood can be analysed using a heating and cooling
method that amplifies the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Using traditional
methods the process is slow (around 50 minutes): the chip does it
in 90 seconds. The advantages of Lilliput laboratories is that they
are easy to make and safer to use. Besides benefiting forensic science
they have an application in testing new drugs.
Imperial College's research programme is part of a 3.2 million
pounds sterling project being carried out with six other universities
and 10 drug companies ensuring the UK will stay ahead in the highly
competitive ``Lilliputian world''.
A serious spur is the completion in five years' time of the International
Human Genome Project that will give scientists a genetic map linking
genes and disease. This is expected to be the basis for DNA chips
carried on swipe cards. With such a genetic profile the card would
reveal immediately to what drugs a patient would respond.