A new lab-on-a-chip can swiftly analyse tiny samples of blood and breast tissue and can identify breast cancer among women, say scientists.

“The concentration of the hormone oestrogen and its metabolites, the products of metabolised oestrogen in breast tissue, are known to be significantly increased in breast cancer patients and is therefore believed to increase the risk of breast cancer,” says Noha Mousa, University of Toronto (U-T).

“Breast oestrogen levels in women at risk are not routinely measured because conventional techniques require large tissue samples obtained through invasive biopsies,” adds Mousa.

A group of U-T scientists used a new technology called digital microfluidics - where instead of moving electrons across tiny wires, minute droplets of fluid are manipulated electrically on the surface of a microchip.

Because these devices can be used to integrate multiple lab functions, this type of technology is sometimes called a “lab-on-a-chip”.

“We applied this technique for the first time to analyse hormones in tiny clinical samples - we looked at blood, serum and breast cancer tissue,” says Mr. Aaron Wheeler, Director of the Wheeler Microfludics lab at the U-T.

“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,” adds Mr. Wheeler.

These findings will be published in the inaugural issue of Science Translational Medicine.