DIY balloon pump takes science out of the lab

DIY balloon pump takes science out of the lab

Illuminate newsletter index page, September 2019
September 2019

Associate Professor Aaron Jex
Associate Professor Aaron Jex contributed his expertise
in global water quality and public health to the project.

It may sound like something from the TV show MacGyver but this $2 gadget, made from a rubber balloon and nylon stockings, is fast-tracking water and blood analysis and can be effectively used outside of the lab.

The DIY device – called a pressure pump – is used to analyse water or biological samples for the presence of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and parasites), cancer cells or other microscopic cells of interest.

The ingenious device was designed and tested by a team of biologists and engineers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and RMIT.

The DIY pump costs just $2 to make, and works almost as well as its expensive equivalents, without the need for a high-tech laboratory.

A much-needed field tool

Pumps are used to make biological samples flow through microfluidic devices, enabling their contents to be identified using a microscope.

The device was able to detect aquatic parasites in contaminated water samples, cancer cells in biological samples, and study vascular diseases.

Associate Professor Aaron Jex contributed his expertise in global water quality and public health to the project.

“This exciting innovation could give us the ability to test samples and diagnose patients for infectious diseases and test water for contaminants,” Associate Professor Jex said.

“There is an urgent need for field-based, low-cost diagnostic tools that work in challenging, sometimes remote and often complex environments, very different from a pristine laboratory. As simple as it may look, this device suits those needs really well and could have a big impact.”

Surprising inspiration

RMIT engineer and study co lead Dr Peter Thurgood said footballs were the inspiration for the simple invention. “We started with basic latex balloons,” Dr Thurgood said.

“By simply wrapping three layers of stockings around the latex balloon we were able to increase its internal pressure by a factor of 10 – enough to run many water or blood analyses that would usually require large, expensive pumps.”

The balloon pump was tested as a point-of-care diagnostic device for detection of very low concentrations of target cancer cells in liquid samples. This was a success, suggesting the pump also had promising applications for early diagnosis of disease, at home or in the doctor’s surgery.

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