How a spin of the ‘lab on a disc’ can be used to diagnose disease

Prof Jens Ducrée of DCU hopes the discs can be used to detect many conditions early on

Prof Jens Ducrée, founding director of the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Embedded Bioanalytical Systems at DCU. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Prof Jens Ducrée, founding director of the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Embedded Bioanalytical Systems at DCU. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw


You want to make it easier to detect and monitor conditions at home or in the doctor’s office. Can you explain?

At the moment there are only a few tests that can be done easily at home – that might be testing for blood-sugar levels with a pin-prick of blood if you have diabetes or using a home-testing kit for pregnancy.

We want to develop new ways of monitoring and testing for lots of other conditions, either at home or in the doctor’s office, that are noninvasive – so they only need a tiny sample – and that are easy to carry out and give results quickly.

How is your research seeking to make this possible?

We work in microfluidics, which involves handling and processing tiny amounts of liquid. My group has developed a “lab on a disc” platform that lets you put a small amount of liquid – a sample of blood from a patient, say – on the centre of the disc. Then, as the disc spins, the blood moves out across the disc through channels and chambers, where it can be conditioned for subsequent analysis with chemicals in place on the disc, and a laser-based reader can tell you the results.

Ultimately we would see doctor’s offices or maybe even homes having small systems in place where you would choose the preloaded lab-on-a-disc for whatever you are looking to detect. The system would typically give you a result in minutes, depending on what the biological reactions need.

What kinds of diseases could you detect with these rapid user-friendly systems?

We have, for instance, collaborations that are looking to develop the discs for detecting the early onset of cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer. Really these systems could be designed to detect lots of other things, too, like bacterial infection or whether a particular drug will agree with a patient.

Going beyond medicine, there are lots of applications such as monitoring water or testing for contamination in agriculture and food-processing.

Can you explain the Fraunhofer connection?

We have just established the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Embedded Bioanalytical Systems at Dublin City University (“FPC@DCU”) in collaboration with the German Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Europe’s leading research organisation for industry-led research, funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

At DCU we previously had the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute (BDI), where we built up a lot of expertise with biologists, clinicians, engineers, chemists and physicists working together and also strong links with industry.

So now the FPC@DCU, which is the first FPC in Ireland, we will continue to build on that research and make it scalable for the market, and we will work closely with the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology in Aachen to do that.

You are from Germany. Why did you decide to move to Ireland?

I moved from Freiburg, and that is where I did my initial studies in the field. I got to a point where I wanted to do more applied research and also it’s the academic culture of Germany that you move away from your initial institution to become a professor. A position came up in DCU and I love Ireland – I came here on holidays as a kid with my family in the early 1980s and I had wanted to come back here since then.

What drives you to keep going with the research?

That what we do will some day help people to know that they are at the early stages of a condition like cardiovascular disease or cancer, and because of that they can be treated in good time with drugs that are effective for them.