Detecting cancer early is difficult enough at the best of times, but the problem is compounded in developing countries where patients don't always have access to advanced diagnostics equipment. A team of UK-based scientists has developed a new tool that could greatly assist those taking the fight to cancer in these regions. Billed as a lab-in-a-briefcase, the low-cost, portable diagnostics tool works similarly to a pregnancy test and can detect cancer biomarkers in as little as 15 minutes.

According to the World Health Organization, 70 percent of the world's cancer deaths take place in Africa, Asia, Central and South America. It is with these regions in mind, where the technology isn't always available to run full laboratories, that scientists from Loughborough University in the UK set out to devise a cheap, portable solution that could be operated with minimal training.

The system fits inside a small briefcase and is made of four main components: a USB-powered film scanner that images the test strips, a portable computer to carry out real-time data analysis, plates loaded with assay reagents, and a multi-syringe device capable of conducting up to 80 tests simultaneously.

Using a novel, cheap microfluidic test strip that features microscopic tubes similar in size to human hair, the system is able to detect various forms of cancer biomarkers in a blood sample within 15 minutes, working in a similar way to a pregnancy test. These strips had been tested in a previous study carried out by the Loughborough scientists, with their value in detecting prostate cancer motivating the team to explore their potential in other areas.

Further to fitting all of this into a small, convenient package, the researchers say that one of the most valuable features of the system may be its ability to test whole blood without the need to prepare samples – a process that has been difficult to carry out beyond the laboratory so far.

"This portable lab can really make a difference, boosting levels of cancer detection in developing countries where ordinarily people would not have such easy access to early diagnostics," says Dr Nuno Reis, lecturer in chemical engineering at Loughborough. "I envisage that our lab-in-a-briefcase could also be developed further in the future to allow for rapid testing of infectious diseases and allergens."

The research has been published in the journal Lab on a Chip.

You can hear from the scientists behind the lab-in-a-briefcase in the video below.

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