New Delhi: Canada-based SciMed Technologies Inc., a privately held maker of diagnostic devices, is close to signing a pact with a Mumbai-based firm to supply in India its new diagnostic devices that can test blood and food samples in minutes as opposed to hours that existing equipment take. Once commercially available, these devices are also expected to cut the cost of such tests.
“We are still working on the device and have confirmed an Indian distributor. I cannot disclose the name (of the company) now because we are still to sign a formal agreement, in the next few weeks,” said Rajan Gupta, president, SciMed Technologies.
The so-called lab-on-chip devices, rectangular and transparent, are not bigger than your thumb. Intricate channels etched on this chip are as thin as strands of hair and separate liquids into their biological basics such as proteins.
Test kit: A scientist at SciMed Technologies tests the lab-on-chip devices at its research and development facility in Edmonton, Canada. Jacob P. Koshy / Mint
These chips are then plugged into special card readers that relay data to a computer, in which custom-designed software can detect the presence of desired molecules.
SciMed, which is still perfecting its proprietary Nutrachip, as they are called, expects to launch the devices in the country by 2010, said Gupta. He didn’t disclose details of the likely pact with the Indian company.
Currently, laboratories use the ELISA (enzyme linked immunosorbent assay) and HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) techniques for testing blood and food samples, using large and expensive devices that can take from several hours to weeks depending on the protein that needs to be analysed.
Several such tests require significant quantities of various chemicals. SciMed’s chips, according to Gupta, won’t need more than a 1,000th of a litre of a sample and also use fewer chemicals.
However, lab-on-chips are still largely in research phase. “Several universities across the world are trying to make effective chips at reasonable costs. As of today, no lab in India uses diagnostic devices of this sort,” said Chandrashekhar Nair, a director at Bangalore-based Bigtec Labs, a start-up that has developed a hand-held device for rapidly detecting Hepatitis B. Nair said Bigtec Labs is in talks with SciMed in a separate deal for another class of diagnostic devices.
According to Nair, high costs for designing such chips and the absence of dedicated manufacturing facilities are barriers to commercial production.
“Just as manufacturing silicon chips needs a well-developed physical infrastructure, even lab-on-chips require good design facilities. Moreover, scientists are still working on practical difficulties, such as having to use a separate chip for each experiment, that make them expensive to the end-user. I think these chips are still a long time away,” said Nair.