10 Important Technologies

1. Miniaturized PCR Test

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic debilitates the world, a miniaturized rapid PCR test, without a doubt, should top the list of important technologies concerning the BNM community. Since the COVID-19 breakout, the PCR test has made news headlines so much so that the lay public has become familiar with the term PCR although most might be unaware of the fact that the acronym stands for polymerase chain reaction and refers to a technique for making many copies of target nucleic acid sequence. PCR has given a quantum leap to clinical and life sciences since its invention in 1980s, bringing 1993 Nobel Chemistry Prize to its inventor Karl Mullis, who shared the Prize with Michael Smith. Routinely performed in laboratories worldwide even before the pandemic, PCR is conducted inside small plastic tubes placed in a desktop equipment called thermal cycler. The equipment executes a prescribed temperature protocol to expose the reaction mixture to repeated cycles of several set temperatures to synthesize billions of copies of target nucleic acid sequence, which is often presented initially at an undetectable copy number. The miniaturization of PCR on a microchip dates back to early 1990s, not long after the miniaturization of capillary or artificial-gel electrophoresis on a microchip. Both of these miniaturized components are complementary because endpoint PCR is followed by electrophoresis in the form of capillary or slab gel to separate and detect reaction products. The miniaturization of PCR is attractive because reducing thermal mass on a microchip speeds up thermal cycling process, considerably reducing overall reaction time down to several minutes. The true value of these efforts, however, lies in the integration of these components into a sample-in-answer-out system that can be deployed at a point-of-care or a checkpoint where it can be operated by unskilled personnel to screen masses for diseases. Such a unit is considered as the holy grail of the Micro Total Analysis Systems or μTAS. As the world battles through another once-in-a-century pandemic, nasal swabs collected from suspects have to be transported to laboratories for a PCR test. We encourage our members, especially those young ones to take the challenge of developing a miniaturized rapid PCR test with sample-in-answer-out capability so that the world can be equipped with the necessary tools to prevent future epidemics from becoming a full-blown pandemic. Further on the topic, we refer readers to the following recent open-access reviews:

Zhu et al., “The vision of point-of-care PCR tests for the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” Trends Anal. Chem., 2020, 130, 115984

Zhu et al., “PCR past, present and future,” Biotechniques, 2020, 69, 317-325