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New chip detects heart attacks better than an EKG

University of Texas researchers test 'nano-bio-chip' for use in hospitals, ambulances

May 16, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - University researchers have developed a silicon chip that they say will more quickly and accurately diagnose heart attacks.

The chip, which they're calling a nano-bio-chip, is designed to analyze the protein biomarkers in human saliva, which indicate whether a person is healthy or if he's heaving a heart attack, according to John McDevitt, principal investigator and designer of the nano-bio-chip at the school. The chip could be used in a hospital, doctor's office or even on board an ambulance, he said.

Heart attacks are the No. 1 killer in the U.S. Every 28 seconds, someone in the U.S. suffers a heart attack, and every minute, someone dies from one. The University of Texas at Austin estimates that some 770,000 Americans will have a new coronary attack and about 430,000 will have a recurrent attack this year.

"It's actually pretty hard to diagnose a heart attack," McDevitt told Computerworld. "The first line of defense is to do an EKG, which misses 25% to 50% of heart attacks. That's not a great batting average for an important medical test."

McDevitt added that if an EKG, or electrocardiogram, comes up negative for a heart attack, doctors have to run a blood test that takes an hour or more to deliver results. "Time is of the essence when you're having a heart attack," he said. "If the EKG misses you, the next step is the blood test, and that could take 60 to 90 minutes. While you're waiting, more and more damage is being done to your heart."

The scientist and his team of researchers are hoping the nano-bio-chip will give doctors and technicians the quick answers they're looking for.

McDevitt describes the chip as a marriage between computer chips and medical diagnostics. Made of silicon, the chip has circuits that run like canals across it, instead of transistors.

Here's how it works: The patient spits into a tube, and his saliva is applied to the chip, which is embedded in a lab card the size of a credit card. The card is then slid into an analyzer, much like a debit card goes into an ATM. The analyzer has a built-in computer with software that reads the results.

Once the saliva is applied to the chip, it runs through the circuitry canals, where the proteins are pulled out and captured in nanoscale sponges. Ten thousand of the sponges could fit on a dime, according to McDevitt.

Next, fluorescent die is applied to the sponge, and it will glow to varying degrees based on the type of protein biomarker detected. The software analyzes the results and immediately spits out a diagnosis.

The technology is still in the clinical testing phase, but McDevitt said that so far, the tests are showing positive results.

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