Honey, I shrunk the DNA lab

Agilent Technologies Canada Inc. claims its Lab-on-a-chip technology greatly reduces the time and sample-size needed to analyze life’s building blocks, giving it the potential to hasten advances in life sciences.

On Tuesday, Agilent officially introduced its 2100 Bioanalyzer, the first commercial Lab-on-a-chip, or microfluidics technology, product. The system is composed of a personal computer, a testing device resembling a hard-drive tower, and accompanying software, all developed by Agilent, as well as LabChip kits for RNA, DNA and protein testing courtesy of Caliper Technologies Corp. Agilent retains the exclusive right to sell the Bioanalyzer and accompanying chips.

Compared with the more conventional Gel electrophoresis method of sample analysis, Agilent’s microfluidics technology requires a smaller sample, is easier to use, involves less exposure to hazardous materials, produces less waste, and most important, is much faster, according to Agilent.

“The main advantage of the chip technology is time,” said Agilent life sciences products specialist Florence Gelly. “People can run ten times more samples in the same time.”

Using the Gel electrophoresis method, molecular biologists apply samples by hand to gel-covered plates and wait several hours for the molecules to separate into bands on the surface of the gel.

The Bioanalyzer prepares and analyzes samples on a LabChip microchip containing micro channels that permit the flow of fluid samples. The chip is placed inside the Bioanalyzer, where electrodes inside the machine move into fluid wells on the chip to test samples. The entire testing process in accomplished in 30 minutes.

As well, where Gel electrophoresis involves a 10 per cent to 20 per cent chance of error, the Bioanalyzer’s error rate is only five per cent, Gelly said.

“It’s an automated process, so we’ve reduced the human error,” she said of the Bioanalyzer, which has actually been available in Canada since Nov. 2000 and is currently in use in 20 places across the country.

Gelly said the more accurate, quicker method of sample analysis holds promise for faster advancements in biotechnology.

“It’s going to give our customers, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, the opportunity to screen more samples and come up with new drugs faster,” Gelly said of the microfluidics technology. “Biotech will be able to find new diseases and find out how they work. We’ll be able to speed up the whole process.

“This is the future. You’re just seeing the beginning of microfluidics technology.”

The $34,000 Bioanalyzer displays data gleaned from the protein samples in a gel-like image as well as in tabular format. Because of their digital nature, the Bioanalyzer’s data displays can also be easily exported to spreadsheet programs and shared with colleagues, and are generally much cleaner and clearer than those produced through Gel electrophoresis.

Cleanliness is key when analyzing samples, especially of RNA. Gelly said RNA samples are rarely analyzed through Gel electrophoresis because only a few microlitres of RNA can be extracted at a time, and 10 to 20 are needed for that type of testing. The time necessary to extract enough microlitres increases the chances of contamination and degradation of the RNA, Gelly said. The Bioanalyzer requires just one microlitre per sample, making RNA testing much more feasible.

While adopting the Bioanalyzer involves a substantial initial involves, Gelly said in the long run, using the system is as affordable as Gel electrophoresis, if not more so. She said Gel electrophoresis costs about $1 per sample, and between $2 and $3 once labour is figured in. In contrast, using the Bioanalyzer costs between $1.60 and $3 per sample (more for protein, less for DNA), and produces less hazardous waste, incurring lower disposal costs.

Pharmaceutical companies “can save money and come up with a drug that may be cheaper,” Gelly said.

Gelly said Agilent will be releasing peptide and cell-base array testing kits for the Bioanalyzer within the next six months.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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