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Past Winner
1996 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Jed Harrison

Chemistry

University of Alberta


"We'll just do a few tests," says the doctor. While the tests themselves may not make you anxious, waiting for the results to come back from the lab often will. Imagine then if tests that must now be done in a full-scale analytical lab could be done in seconds on a few feet of counter space in the doctor's office. Sounds impossible?

Not so, says Jed Harrison. The University of Alberta chemistry professor is a leader in the development of miniature analytical systems. Micromachining techniques are used to fabricate tiny three-dimensional structures that can carry out chemical analyses on a piece of silicon a couple of centimetres square. The result is a "lab-on-a-chip."

"Our lab and others around the world have demonstrated that we can drive chemical reactions and perform very efficient separations with these chips," Dr. Harrison says. "What is just starting now is the application of these devices to realistic samples."

And the applications are diverse. They include immunological tests for hormones and drugs of abuse, DNA diagnostics, tests for soil and water contamination, and detection of biological warfare agents on the battlefield. The small size of the devices would make test kits easily portable, a key advantage for military and environmental applications. As well, chemical analyses can be completed in seconds, virtually eliminating any anxious waiting for test results. A lab-on-a-chip also requires only a minute volume of test material - about one billionth of a millilitre, a "speck" to non-scientists.

Perhaps most amazing are the detection limits of these devices. They are capable of detecting picomolar concentrations - that's like one Tylenol tablet dissolved in 12 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

"This is the sort of thing people react to by saying 'wow.' Well, I feel that way too," says Dr. Harrison. "This field is opening up in front of our eyes. It is very exciting to push the limits in miniaturization, speed and detection. I love it."