Thursday, April 18, 2013

Replacing Flow Cytometry with ... DVDs?

I read a story about scientific ingenuity in middle school that, on a subconscious level at least, made me want to be a scientist. In it, a physicist was able to cool down matter with lasers into a state so cold that it collapsed in on itself, overlapping in space the way light waves do. He turned substance into light, it had something to do with the spin of the nucleus or something like that. Now, the best part of this was that this scientist didn't have money for all the lasers you use to cool down the matter, but instead he figured out how to dismantle CD players and use the ubiquitous mass-produced lasers from those to do that exact job.

Now there's something else that reminded me of that story, only with DVDs instead of CDs. In this link there's the story of how if you add an extra photodiode to a DVD player and then make this special DVD with microfluidic channels inside, then you can adhere a specific molecule to those channels, spin the DVD around and detect the cells that stick to that molecule using the DVD player. In short, you can look and see if the cells have a specific receptor or not.

If this can be made to work at low concentrations of cells (and that's a big if), then this could replace a $50,000 flow cytometer with a $200 DVD player. The immediate application discussed is an HIV test, but that's only the beginning. You could look for cells complementary to any molecule you could stick to the wall in high enough concentration. With $49,800 left over for other experiments.

That's the kind of science that I find truly exciting. Not the bigger more expensive instrument (that's for other scientists, it takes all kinds) but the cheaper more efficient instrument. The MacGyver effect, if anyone remembers that show -- although I personally was always more partial to the A-Team, potato, potahto. This is the kind of science I can do with undergrads in my lab. Something you can do with your own hands (and budget): that's exciting.

I'm going to start a new tag for this, because I keep finding examples. Let's call it "cheap science," although "MacGyver science" might be just as good. More to come ...

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