Lab-on-a-chip changes diagnostics industry

labtestsBIZMOLOGY — Last week I talked about how Whole Foods’ requirement that all genetically modified foods it sells be labeled as such was a game-changer for the food manufacturing and grocery industry.

This week, here’s another one: A team at Columbia University developed a handheld testing device that can perform HIV testing faster and more accurately than traditional tests sent to a diagnostics lab. What is important about this development is not the “faster and more accurate” part, although the diagnostics industry will want to take a close look at this technology. The device actually combines the two trends driving medical testing right now: point-of-care testing and data aggregation and sharing.

The device, which appears to be unnamed at the moment, can detect the presence of HIV from a drop of blood in 15 minutes and then uplink the information to a data repository in the cloud so the information can be shared among public health officials. It’s meant to supplement clinical laboratory testing in remote areas of poor nations, which are disproportionately ravaged by the AIDS epidemic.

The device will have wider applications, though. Being able to share such data is an important capability for public health. Imagine if other diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and the flu could be tested for instantly with results uplinked for officials to see in which regions epidemics or surges of infections are occurring. Combined with the so-called “Google flu” analytics and data from government health organizations, sharing this data could be a powerful weapon in the spread of disease.

So what makes this a game-changer for the roughly $30 billion diagnostic laboratories industry? Labs that create their own innovative point-of-care testing devices, or develop tests for them, can grab part of this new market. They can also offer data aggregation and analytics services to public health organizations using this data plus their own in-house testing data. While the US has patient privacy laws under HIPAA, health care companies already know what it’s like to balance electronic health information with privacy laws.

The concept of point-of-care testing isn’t new; consumers already use handheld devices for instant testing — think blood glucose meters for people with diabetes. Smart phone apps and “tricorder”-like diagnostic devices are also making inroads into the point-of-care testing market. Home health care service providers are moving into telemedicine, in which blood pressure and other diagnostic information is sent over the phone to health care experts. So for diagnostic laboratories, the question is not if point-of-care testing takes off, but when.

Patrice Sarath

Patrice Sarath is a writer and editor for First Research, covering the health care, insurance, and construction industries.

Read more articles by Patrice Sarath.

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