A new hand-held probe could isolate and extract DNA from human fluid samples significantly faster and more efficiently than current techniques.

The device is the outcome of collaborative research between engineers at the University of Washington and the company NanoFacture, and is said to be ready to go into production. It could potentially dramatically speed up the process of extracting DNA from samples in hospitals and laboratories, allowing greater throughput and quicker results for patients and investigators.

The physical isolation of DNA from samples has started to become a bottleneck step in the process of analysing genetic information, since sequencing itself has sped up considerably in recent years. The most commonly used method to isolate DNA is a centrifuge, which spins samples and separates DNA molecules from other cellular components by weight, and which generally takes at least 20-30 minutes.

This new device employs several microscopic probes that are inserted into a sample, followed by the application of an electric field designed to cause DNA-sized molecules to preferentially adhere to the probes’ surface. The developers claim it can separate and purify DNA from a sample in just 2-3 minutes.

One of the lead researchers on the project, Jae-Hyun Chung of the University of Washington, suggested their method had much greater precision and selectivity than those currently in use, saying "When you think of the current procedure, the equivalent is like collecting human hairs using a construction crane”.

Comment: If this device is able to deliver on its claims it could significantly speed up turnaround time for patient diagnoses and forensic investigations, but the proof will be whether it can be successfully manufactured in a robust and reliable enough form, and at a price that will lead to widespread uptake by leading institutions.

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