Panacea for the Planet?

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - De­bku­mar Mi­tra

Last week, while the world was tuned to the Nasa brief­ing on the dis­cov­ery of seven Earth-like plan­ets around a cool star about 40 light years away, med­i­cal di­ag­nos­tics ex­pe­ri­enced a mini-revo­lu­tion. It could change how po­ten­tial dis­eases are de­tected and treated. It is a re­us­able bio­med­i­cal chip that costs 1 cent, roughly 70 paise, and can de­tect al­most all lethal dis­eases from AIDS to can­cer.

In the pa­per, Mul­ti­func­tional, In­ex­pen­sive, and Re­us­able Nanopar­ti­clePrinted Biochip for Cell Ma­nip­u­la­tion and Di­ag­no­sis pub­lished in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sci­ences (PNAS), a group of Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity en­gi­neers claim that this minia­turised lab-on-a-chip (LOC) has the po­ten­tial to lower the di­ag­nos­tics costs to un­heard of lev­els. This is the best news for the de­vel­op­ing world with mod­est pub­lic health­care in­fra­struc­ture and near ab­sent point-of-care di­ag­nos­tic fa­cil­i­ties. An in­ven­tion like this can save many lives across Asia, Africa and South Amer­ica.

For a long time, ac­cess to qual­ity health­care in coun­tries such as In­dia has been lim­ited. Of­ten, a hos­pi­tal is far away from the places of dis­ease out­breaks and it takes a long time for a dis­ease-re­sponse team to reach farflung ar­eas to di­ag­nose the ail­ment. Ev­ery year, be it en­cephali­tis in Ut­tar Pradesh or malaria in north West Ben­gal, scores of peo­ple die of­ten with­out proper med­i­cal care.

The Stan­ford re­search team has taken a note of this gap. “In the de­vel­op­ing world and re­source-lim­ited ar­eas re­quire nu­mer­ous spe­cial de­sign con­sid­er­a­tions to pro­vide ef­fec­tive early de­tec­tion of dis­ease. Of par­tic­u­lar need for th­ese con­texts are di­ag­nos­tic tech­nolo­gies fea­tur­ing low costs, ease of use and broad ap­pli­ca­bil­ity,” they write in their PNAS pa­per. The need has re­sulted in the man­u­fac­tur­ing process that is sim­ple yet ef­fec­tive.

The Stan­ford chip has a three-layer con­fig­u­ra­tion. The top layer is re­us­able and it can be “printed onto the de­vice through a stan­dard ink-jet printer”. The dis­pos­able, sil­i­cone bot­tom layer is de­signed to hold bi­o­log­i­cal flu­ids from a pa­tient to be an­a­lysed. The third part con­sists of a thin bar­rier that keeps the elec­tron­ics in the top layer away from the flu­ids in the bot­tom cham­ber.

The pro­duc­tion of the chips is a two-step process. The first in­volves cre­ation of a cus­tom elec­tronic cir­cuit based on user needs. That is, de­sign­ing a cir­cuit that will iso­late biomolecules with dis­tinct prop­er­ties, such as shape, size, or po­lar­is­abil­ity, when an elec­tric po­ten­tial is ap­plied across the cir­cuit. Then based on the de­sign “reg­u­lar inkjet print­ers that can be used to print the elec­tronic strip onto a flex­i­ble sheet of polyester us­ing com­mer­cially avail­able con­duc­tive nanopar­ti­cle ink and place it over the sin­gle-use sil­i­con cham­bers”. In the fu­ture, ac­cord­ing to the team, “de­signs for the top layer can be down­loaded from the web”.

It is not only the costs that have come down, but also man­u­fac­tur­ing time — to min­utes now. “Per­haps most no­tably, the de­vice man­u­fac­tur­ing is sig­nif­i­cantly less ex­pen­sive, time-con­sum­ing, and com­plex than tra­di­tional LOC plat­forms, re­quir­ing only an inkjet printer rather than skilled per­son­nel and clean-room fa­cil­i­ties. Pro­duc­tion only takes 20 min­utes (vs up to weeks),” the re­port states.

How did the chip per­form under lab­o­ra­tory con­di­tions? Dur­ing the study, the Stan­ford en­gi­neers con­ducted tests to find out if their chip could be used to iso­late can­cer cells from a fluid sam­ple. It did that with­out any hitch. The re­searchers write that they also com­pared the ef­fi­ciency of their chip against an avail­able Rs7,000,000 flow cy­tome­ter, a de­vice to mea­sure the char­ac­ter­is­tics of cells, typ­i­cally used to count im­mune cells, and both tools mea­sured the cell count ac­cu­rately.

With ar­te­rial stent prices hav­ing been re­duced by nearly 75%, a de­vice like this will make med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties a lot cheaper than what it is to­day. It can po­ten­tially stop dis­eases from as­sum­ing an epi­demic pro­por­tion and can al­low med­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tors to di­vert a lot of funds to de­velop other ar­eas of med­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture.

How­ever, there is al­ways the fear of profit sharks. Be­fore the gov­ern­ment clamped down, a stent that costs around Rs15,000 in Ger­many was sell­ing for Rs100,000 in In­dia. Many feel the gov­ern­ment was late in tak­ing ac­tion.

But a caveat. Like the Nasa sci­en­tists not sure about the pres­ence of alien life forms on the newly found seven plan­ets out­side our so­lar sys­tem, the com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion of the Stan­ford de­vice is still not on the hori­zon. This will de­pend on sev­eral fac­tors — from fur­ther test­ing to meet­ing sev­eral stan­dards. The team has started the process. “This in­ex­pen­sive, ac­ces­si­ble plat­form has broad ap­pli­ca­tions in pre­ci­sion di­ag­nos­tics and is a step to­ward the democrati­sa­tion of med­i­cal tech­nolo­gies,” the re­port states. Let’s wait and watch, pa­tiently. Digi­ti­sa­tion has be­come deeply em­bed­ded in bank­ing strat­egy, as nearly all busi­nesses and ac­tiv­i­ties have been slated for dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tions. The sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tages of digi­ti­sa­tion, with re­spect to cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence, rev­enue, and cost, have be­come in­creas­ingly com­pelling. The mo­men­tum to adopt the new tech­nolo­gies and op­er­at­ing mod­els needed to cap­ture th­ese ben­e­fits con­tin­ues to build. The risk func­tion should be no ex­cep­tion. In­deed, we are start­ing to see dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tions in risk cre­ate real busi­ness value by im­prov­ing ef­fi­ciency and the qual­ity of risk de­ci­sions. A digi­tised risk func­tion also pro­vides more ef­fec­tive reg­u­la­tory com­pli­ance. Ex­pe­ri­ence shows that the struc­tural changes needed to bring costs down and im­prove ef­fec­tive­ness in risk can be ac­com­plished much like dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tions in other parts of the bank. The dis­tin­guish­ing con­text of the risk en­vi­ron­ment, how­ever, has im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tions. First, risk prac­ti­tion­ers in most reg­u­la­tory ju­ris­dic­tions have been under ex­treme pres­sure to meet evolv­ing reg­u­la­tory re­quire­ments and have had lit­tle time for much else. Sec­ond, chief risk of­fi­cers have been wary of the test-and-learn ap­proaches char­ac­ter­is­tic of dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion, as the cost of er­rors in the risk en­vi­ron­ment can be un­ac­cept­ably high. As a re­sult, progress in digi­tis­ing risk pro­cesses has been par­tic­u­larly slow.

From: Dig­i­tal Risk: Trans­form­ing Risk Man­age­ment for the 2020s

Yes, this does look promis­ing

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