For decades, the blood test has been one of the most common, and important, diagnostic tools in medicine. But could blood tests be more effective, more efficient and nearly painless?
To improve health outcomes, researchers at Concordia University in Montreal are developing new technologies to create a better blood test, from minimizing how many samples are drawn to reimagining the systems that manage and distribute results.
Each year, approximately 10 million blood tests are performed at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital (JGH). When blood test results require immediate attention, physicians are notified by phone.
But contacting a physician by phone can be administratively burdensome, notes Dr. Chun Wang, associate professor at Concordia’s Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science.
Given the number of blood tests requiring critical alerts at the hospital daily – numbering in the hundreds – notifying physicians by phone involves human resources that could be used for other laboratory duties.
This is what motivated Dr. Wang to develop a mobile app for physicians at the JGH that would alert them when a patient has critically important blood test results.
“It’s not just to notify the doctor of critical results; it’s a whole management system in which the results workflow is managed by the app,” Dr. Wang says.
The yet-to-be-named app, which was tested by several doctors in the diagnostic laboratory at the JGH in 2019, puts all patient test results at their physicians’ fingertips as soon as possible, while alerting doctors of critical findings via email, text or phone call alert.
“It solves a very serious problem of how to contact doctors with the results of their patients [when the results are] dangerous and must be treated immediately,” says Dr. Elizabeth MacNamara, a medical biochemist and director of diagnostic medicine at the JGH.
And what about the actual blood samples? Taking a biomedical approach, Dr. Dajana Vuckovic and her lab team are focusing on how to improve biomarker measurements in blood and measure multiple biomarkers in a single test.
Biomarkers are biological entities, such as molecules, genes, enzymes or hormones, that can be detected and measured in blood and may indicate the presence of a disease or predict success of treatment.
The goal is to make blood tests more informative for physicians while making them less invasive for patients. This is especially beneficial in intensive care environments when patients in critical condition may already be suffering from major blood loss.
Dr. Vuckovic, research chair for clinical metabolomics at Concordia and director of Concordia’s Centre for Biological Applications of Mass Spectrometry, says the aim is to widen the scope of a blood test, so that a test could examine hundreds of biomarkers at one time. This can be accomplished using mass spectrometry, which is a technique that identifies molecules by their mass.
While mass spectrometry is currently used to test newborn babies for genetic diseases, this is a new application of the technology that could radically change the way blood tests are administered.
Dr. Vuckovic’s team wants to use mass spectrometry to provide a complete metabolic profile from a single blood test, allowing laboratories to do more with less blood. That way, rather than a physician ordering testing for just blood triglycerides and cholesterol, for example, a blood draw could provide a more complete picture of patient health – hundreds of biomarkers offering insights into everything from kidney and cardiac function to detecting infections.
Yet Dr. Vuckovic’s team seeks to go even further. In collaboration with other Canadian researchers, the team is studying a technology called solid-phase microextraction.
“With this, you don’t even have to take a blood sample,” she says. “You just put a tiny, microsize needle into the blood or tissue and take the needle out to perform the test.”
Solid-phase microextraction’s specially coated needle is used to extract biomarkers of interest in such small amounts they are invisible to the naked eye. It’s pain-free and ‘fear-free’ for those who dread a needle piercing their arm.
New applications are being investigated for Dr. Vuckovic’s leading-edge blood tests and clinical trials are underway for Dr. Wang’s blood test management app. Though still in the early days, Concordia researchers are developing technologies to gather and transform health information for medical practitioners.
As Dr. Wang notes: “It’s really about creating the right tools to provide the right data to the right doctor at the right time.”
For more information about cutting-edge health research, visit Concordia’s Health Hub.
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