A portable biochip device that requires just a small blood sample to detect sickle cell disease shows promise as a point-of-care testing (POC) device for infants in developing countries.

Researchers from Seidman Cancer Center at University Hospitals (UH) Case Medical Center, and Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine (CWRU) recently presented an abstract describing the new “HemeChip” test and how it works as a POC test.

POC diagnostic tests for homozygous (HbSS) or compound heterozygous (HbSC or HbS-Beta thalassemia) sickle cell disease (SCD) are scarce in places like Africa and in developing countries, the researchers indicated in a poster presentation. More than 50% of infants born with this disease in these parts of the world die before they reach 5 years of age. SCD causes organ damage and severe pain as well as early mortality.

“While sickle cell newborn screening is standard in the U.S., very few infants are screened in Africa because of the high cost and level of skill needed to run traditional tests,” said Jane Little, MD, director of the Adult Sickle Cell Anemia Center, UH Seidman Cancer Center and associate professor at CWRU School of Medicine in a statement.

Current methods are too slow and expensive and not ideal for making diagnoses soon enough to save lives. Newborn screening for SCD in developing countries are conducted in central laboratories, which means that results can take weeks. Parents who test their children in health centers are often difficult to reach once they leave, which delays important interventions for infants with SCD.

Considering that 70% of SCD-related deaths in infants could be prevented through early interventions, there is an urgent need to develop effective POC tests that can diagnose diseases of this type while an infant is onsite at a health center.

According to the poster session, the HemeChip mobile biochip device, which was developed by Umut Gurkan, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Case Western Reserve University, in collaboration with Little and other researchers, may be a potential solution.

“This new mobile technology provides an easy to use, cost-effective tool that takes us closer to standardizing newborn screenings on mobile devices, thus simplifying diagnosis. It could make a huge difference in developing nations worldwide, enabling early treatment for this disease,” Little said.

In evaluating the HemeChip’s micro-electrophoresis results against standard clinical hemoglobin screening methods, the HemeChip scored well in identifying hemoglobin types, with an 0.89 sensitivity and a 0.86 specificity. According to the poster presentation, “HemeChip can distinguish between different patient phenotypes, including HbSS (HbS only), transfused HbSS (HbS and HbA), and Hemoglobin SC disease (HbS and HbC)” with a tiny blood sample, which is taken from the finger or heel of an infant.

The investigators plan to travel to Ghana to test the HemeChip platform in pediatric patients.