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Tiny lab, huge breakthroughs

When a foodborne illness outbreak occurs, every minute counts. Health authorities need to rapidly detect the pathogen behind the outbreak (e.g. E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc.) so Canadians don’t become ill or in some more serious cases, die.

While microbiologists have the right tools to identify pathogens, the process can be lengthy at times and in some cases needs updating. Health Canada and the National Research Council (NRC) decided to team up to tackle this problem.

The result of their ten-year collaboration, a “lab-on-a-chip technology" that quickly detects pathogens in foods, is set to revolutionize microbiology testing and several other areas of research.

A lab that gives faster results

With traditional lab equipment, microbiologists have to prepare the sample, let the bug grow under the right conditions, isolate the bacteria, and then test it. It can take several days to identify a pathogen, as it requires a lot of time and equipment to perform sample testing.

With the new lab-on-a-chip technology, scientists go through the same steps, but the process is much quicker and takes place in a miniaturized laboratory on a chip the size of a credit card. Once the food sample has been prepared, scientists load the chips onto a computer-controlled machine called the PowerBlade. It automatically processes and mixes the food sample with the chemicals and enzymes on the chip that are used to detect the pathogen. What would otherwise require days now takes just an hour and a half to see results.

“The lab-on-a-chip technology acts as a sort of modern dipstick. If a food sample is contaminated with a pathogen, a specific color will appear on the chip,” says Health Canada scientist Nathalie Corneau, who helped create food pathogen detection chips for the PowerBlade. “This technology also has the advantage of being simple to use, which means it can be taught fairly easily to most lab technicians, wherever they are located in Canada.”

A sample lab-on-a-chip, about the size of a credit card, which can be used to detect food pathogens faster

A sample lab-on-a-chip, about the size of a credit card, which can be used to detect food pathogens faster

A lab for every environment

Not all farms, food producers, food processing companies or remote communities in Canada are equipped with high-tech facilities that could quickly detect food pathogens if an outbreak occurred. That’s why lab-on-a-chip technologies, such as the ones used with the PowerBlade, are so important: they enhance point-of-care of testing. Thanks to these new technologies, residents from anywhere in the country won’t have to wait days for results; they will be better equipped to respond to emergency situations as they arise. Moreover, the portability of these new technologies also means they can be used almost anywhere, including in space!

A lab with space potential

In addition to making improvements to the detection of food pathogens and enhancing point-of-care testing, the PowerBlade, also known as MicroPREP, has huge potential for astronauts. When sent into space, astronauts are asked to collect data from a variety of tests. As you can imagine, their time is usually very limited. That’s where the PowerBlade comes in.

“MicroPREP would automate the preparation of biological samples (blood, urine, etc.) in a microgravity-compatible environment. It’s a bit like the “ready-to-eat meal” of biomedical analysis in space,” according to Denis Charlebois, Senior Exploration Scientist, Astronauts, Life Sciences and Space Medicine at the Canadian Space Agency. “MicroPREP opens the door to a wide range of analytical techniques that would otherwise be difficult or simply impossible to carry out without this cutting-edge technology. MicroPREP is a very promising technology that could allow analytical techniques used on Earth to be replicated in the context of space exploration.”

MicroPREP: New advances in sample purification - Transcript

Daniel Brassard: What we’re developing for MicroPREP is a new microfluidic platform. It’s a new platform for handling liquids that provides a much higher level of control and complexity than what was available in the past.

Even though astronauts could be trained to do biological testing in space, they generally don’t have enough time to do the number of tests required. So essentially, this technology is designed to automate the process of handling liquids.

It all happens inside a small cartridge that’s about the size of a credit card, that has channels and reservoirs. Once there are fluids inside, the device will make them automatically flow to the right place.

All of this will have a huge impact on Earth because it will become possible to perform many tests in environments where no laboratory is available.

So it’s a nice surprise to be able to work on something that not only has benefits for space applications, but that also has tremendous benefits here on Earth.


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