Courtesy Chung
Associate Professor Jae-Hyun Chung spearheaded the research that streamlines DNA extraction efforts.

The concept of extracting and analyzing human DNA is, for most of us, a little out of the knowledge comfort zone. But last week, research at the University of Washington revealed a device that suggested the process doesn’t have to be so complex after all.

Instead, it could start and end with a single swab to the tongue.

Led by Jae-Hyun Chung, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, a team of UW engineers worked with Bellevue-based NanoFacture to develop a device for a one-step system of DNA extraction.

According to Chung, this process should be easy enough for elementary school.

“We wanted to have a device that K-12 kids could use,” Chung said.

The device is meant to streamline DNA extraction efforts by separating actual DNA from the other bodily proteins and fluids it is extracted with. The system can take a swab of saliva, separate the fluids, and make a clean DNA sample that’s ready for analysis.

The device itself looks something like a miniature coffee machine (see image below). Swabs are collected and placed into the device, where a tiny probe is inserted into each sample to begin the separation process. Using an electric field, the DNA is attracted to the probe, while other particles float away.

The entire process takes about three minutes.

In comparison to older methods of sample separation, the device is much smaller and more portable. But Chung said the changes in size and speed aren’t the only improvements the device brings. It’s also an environmentally friendly alternative.

“The current process can handle only a limited number of samples with extravagant use of toxic chemicals,” Chung said. “This product will only use one thousandth [the chemicals] of the other kits but the performance is similar.”

A prototype of Nano's new DNA extraction device.
A prototype of NanoFacture’s new DNA extraction device

In 2006, the team began working on DNA extraction technology and focusing on ways to streamline the effort. Chung said one of the largest research barriers to DNA analysis is the separation process needed to create a clean sample. One of the current processes involves a large centrifuge system that spins to separate the DNA from other fluids.

NanoFacture’s device works much faster than the centrifuge method and functions without the use of heavy chemicals. And because it is handheld, Chung said the product could be used in the home or taken to remote locations to provide lower-cost testing.

“One of the main challenges for DNA analysis is to rapidly prepare genomic DNA for genome sequencing, disease diagnosis, and forensic analysis,” he said. “The product will remove the hassle of preparing purified DNA from human samples.”

At a larger scale, the device could filter 96 samples simultaneously, but could also be scaled to a single-use form that would be taken home with patients.

The device is the first of a few related devices NanoFacture is currently working on; Chung said the company is also developing a device that could quickly test for communicable diseases like Tuberculosis using similar technology.

Previously on GeekWire: OneBusAway finds a new home with Sound Transit

Alisa Reznick is a University of Washington student working as an editorial intern at GeekWire this quarter. Reach her at alisa@geekwire.com or on Twitter @AlisaReznick.

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