In an effort to improve early detection of pancreatic cancer, University of Washington scientists and engineers are creating a silicon, credit-card-sized, flexible device that will replicate the biopsy process of a pathology lab. The low-cost biopsy device replaces the current biopsy procedure and relies on fluid transport rather than human hands to process the tissue. The device utilizes microfluidics, allowing tissue to stop and go with ease through small channels without a lot of external force.

This new technology would keep the tissue uncut and analyze it in 3-D, providing a better picture of the cellular makeup of a tumor than current 2-D processes. Ronnie Das, a University of Washington postdoctoral researcher in bioengineering and lead author on a related paper, explains, “As soon as you cut a piece of tissue, you lose information about it. If you can keep the original tissue biopsy intact, you can see the whole story of abnormal cell growth. You can also see connections, cell morphology, and structure as it looks in the body.”

The new technology allows pathologists to see how the cancer has progressed. The device is made using a mold from a petri dish and Teflon tubes, and then pouring a thick, silicon material into the mold. This creates a transparent instrument with seamless channels, both curved and straight. The fluid transport allows tissue to pass through the device and reproduce the steps a normal biopsy would take without human handling. Essentially, tissue samples can be taken with a syringe needle and transferred directly to the biopsy device.

According to researchers, this is the first time material larger than a single-celled organism has been able to move through a microfluidic device. The designers behind the small, clear apparatus are Das and Chris Burfeind, a mechanical engineering undergraduate at UW. They hope to next include 3-D imaging in a single device and develop it for lab use. Their research is funded by the U.S. Department of Education Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program and the National Science Foundation Bioengineering division. The initial results were presented at this month’s SPIE Photonics West conference.