Lab-on-fiber sensors could monitor the environment and hunt for disease inside your body.
Imagine an entire laboratory that fits inside a case the size of a tablet computer. The lab would include an instrument for reading out results and an array of attachable microsize probes for detecting molecules in a fluid sample, such as blood or saliva. Each probe could be used to diagnose one of many different diseases and health conditions and could be replaced for just a few cents.
This scenario is by no means a pipe dream. The key to achieving it will be optical glass fibers—more or less the same as the ones that already span the globe, ferrying voluminous streams of data and voice traffic at unmatchable speeds. Their tiny diameter, dirt-cheap cost, and huge information-carrying capacity make these fibers ideal platforms for inexpensive, high-quality chemical sensors.
We call this technology a lab on fiber. Beyond being an affordable alternative to a traditional laboratory, it could take on tasks not possible now. For instance, it could be snaked inside industrial machines to ensure product quality and test for leaks. It could monitor waterways and waste systems, survey the oceans, or warn against chemical warfare. One day, maybe as soon as a decade from now, it could be injected into humans to look for disease orstudy the metabolism of drugs inside the body.
It will probably be at least five years before lab-on-fiber instruments are ready for commercial use. For example, a remaining major challenge is figuring out how to toughen the surface coating on the probes so that they can be stored for several months without becoming unstable and thereby losing their ability to bind with target molecules.
Nevertheless, lab-on-fiber technology is tantalizingly close to being able to compete in cost and performance with today’s diagnostic tools for many applications. One of the first might very well be a blood test: Imagine turning on your home lab kit, pricking your finger, and blotting the blood on an array of fiber probes. In just a few minutes, the machine would automatically e-mail the results to your doctor, who could get back to you within hours if there was a problem. Meanwhile, you could get on with the rest of your day.