British scientists have developed a tabletop DNA test laboratory that can cut the diagnosis of disease and infection from hours to 30 minutes. This new test laboratory will soon begin trials in UK hospitals.
Scientists at the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) developed the DNA test lab as a fast, accurate, battlefield detection system for biological warfare agents such as anthrax. The portable mini-lab, which uses the PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) process to amplify DNA, is a spin-off of this research.
The PCR process was developed by U.S. biochemist Dr. Kary Mullis. In 1993 Dr. Mullis was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for the PCR process.
The first trials, at hospitals in Portsmouth and Liverpool, will use urine samples to diagnose infections, notably chlamydia, within 40 minutes.
At present chlamydia testing requires samples to be sent away for analysis and can take up to two weeks to get the results back to the patient. The DSTL system which is at the pre-production phase, is designed to run in the clinic giving a 'while you wait' service to patients. Trials of the system called NPTGold, will take place in genito-urinary clinics in the UK and are due to start by the end of the year.
The portable mini-lab will also be able to help farmers detect animal diseases, including foot and mouth or tuberculosis in cattle, in the field rather than taking samples back to a laboratory.
Other applications include detecting genetic modifications (GM) in food at the food processing plant or where its sold as well as spotting contamination such as Salmonella, Listeria and E.coli. This new testing will also allow police officers and forensic scientists to analyze DNA samples at the scene of a crime.
DSTL Head of Technology Transfer and Investments Group Tim Rubidge said, "this technology is not a twinkle in the eye of a research scientist looking far out into the future. We have a portfolio of more than 20 strong patents on PCR development, field-tested instruments and continuing research projects supporting the Ministry of Defense and Department of Health. It is fair to say that we have taken PCR out of the research lab and into the field where it is most needed."
The PCR process heats and cools samples using an enzyme to generate billions of copies of segments of DNA, enabling many research and clinical applications such as disease diagnosis. It is normally a laboratory-based technique and this usually involves a heating block to heat and cool samples in test tubes. DSTL has negated the need for the heating block by creating a novel heating system using custom built test tubes made from a Electrically Conducting Polymer or plastic which heats and cools the test tubes individually. This not only speeds up the process, but also creates a lighter more portable instrument, able to carry out several tests simultaneously. Its potential for use in the fields of medicine, veterinary research and GM food testing is now being realized.
DSTL is launching a joint venture with industry to capitalize on its work. The spin out company, called Enigma Diagnostics will launch two rapid, fully automated diagnostic machines, which have adapted the PCR process.
DSTL is the center of scientific excellence for the Ministry of Defense, housing one of the largest groups of scientists and engineers in public service in the country. It has a 3,000 strong workforce.