When an infectious disease outbreak occurs, time is of the essence. Health officials need to trace the vectors of the infection and take measures to contain the spread of the contagion. One disease that falls into this category is the infamous Legionnaire’s, which is caused by bacteria that can take hold in certain types of air conditioning systems that then spread it throughout buildings. In order to identify the source of an outbreak, the germs of a suspected source must be matched with those infecting a patient. The problem is that this process traditionally requires growing samples of the bacteria for testing, a task that can take ten days.

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have come up with a faster way to identify the source of a Legionnaire’s outbreak. Using a microarray analysis chip from GWK GmbH in Munich, they have developed a system that can not only identify the bacteria, but can distinguish between 20 different sub-types. Best of all, the analysis takes just 34 minutes. The lab-on-a-chip is so inexpensive that it can be used for single-use applications. As a result, health officials will be able to identify the pathogens rapidly and launch a response sooner.

This low-cost and efficient way of analyzing bio-samples has far ranging implications, as it could be applied to a wide range of bacteria and other infectious materials. It could help identify pathogens in under-developed regions, such as contaminated water supplies. One of the best ways to help people stay healthy is to prevent them from getting sick in the first place. Lab-on-a-chip technology could play a rapidly growing role in detecting and diagnosing diseases of all sorts.