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(L to R) Sumanpreet Chhina, Mona Rahbar and Avneet Bajwa show off the new microfluidic chips they helped develop, which are key to more quickly carrying out bacterial tests on sick newborns in rural India.

Biochips could save thousands of Indian newborns

November 4, 2010

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SFU engineering scientist Ash Parameswaran and a trio of grad students working with Indian researchers have created a fast, effective way to diagnose bacteria-infected newborns that could potentially save thousands of lives in rural India.

The researchers have developed a class of plastic microfluidic chips that can determine the sensitivity of bacterial strains to different antibiotics within hours, using a simple LED light source.

Currently, because rural Indian doctors frequently must send bacterial samples to labs many miles away, identifying an effective antibiotic can take days, given the country’s transportation challenges, says Parameswaran.

The tiny lab-on-a-chip, or LOC, devices contain miniature chambers that hold fecal bacteria samples and a food mixture containing different antibiotics and a dye material, which the bacteria consume.

“The bacteria consume the food in the presence of the antibiotic and the digestion by-product can be seen using a fluorescence technique,” says Parameswaran.
“If the bacteria live in spite of the antibiotic, the sample glows green. If the antibiotic is effective the bacteria die and that sample does not glow.

“This is a simple textbook approach called an antibiogram. We’ve simply implemented the approach on a chip.”

The idea took root after Parameswaran gave a series of talks two years ago to local Indian organizations, highlighting SFU’s capabilities, the School of Engineering Science’s microfabrication research and his group’s plastic microfluidics technology.

With funding from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, SFU grad students Mona Rahbar and Suman Chhina developed the first prototypes, which were tested in Indian labs last year.

Indian researchers then visited SFU and spent two weeks with the students performing tests using non-pathogenic bacterial strains provided by SFU researcher Fiona Brinkman’s lab.

The prototype devices were then tested in India using native bacterial strains, and the results helped formulate the next generation of chips the grad students developed.

The second-generation chips are now in India undergoing detailed testing that could possibly lead to field trials.

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