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Made to measure treatment

HLS researchers, in collaboration with firms in the Swiss medical sector, have developed a way to measure nutrients in the blood quickly and easily without the need to visit a doctor.

Just a few microlitres of a blood sample taken at home are enough to analyse 20 different substances. The results are sent to a mobile phone app to identify and help counteract nutrient deficiencies. The companies involved in the project are already using the new process successfully, leading to infrastructure investment and new jobs.

Personalised medicine is on everyone’s lips. It uses data from blood samples and stool analyses, from fitness trackers and patient questionnaires, with the goal of tailor-made medical treatment for each patient instead of standardised textbook therapy. The philosophy is that each person is an individual with very different habits, genetic data and microbiomes – the microorganisms that colonise them. These differences affect not only whether someone gets certain diseases but also how the body processes vitamins, trace elements and other nutrients. Thus general recommendations, such as on dietary supplements, may be ineffective since they are not tailored to the individual. This could soon change. In an industrial partnership with Baze Labs AG and Swiss Analysis AG, HLS researchers have developed a method for measuring vitamins, amino acids, trace elements and omega-3 fatty acids in a single drop of blood.

The process is simple: having received a painfree blood collection kit by post, people collect a drop of blood at home and send it to the laboratory – as often as they want. A few days later they receive an analysis via the app and a recommendation as to which nutrients they need more of. “Vitamins and trace elements play an important role in the prevention of diseases and a healthy lifestyle,”explains Götz Schlotterbeck from the Institute for Chemistry and Bioanalytics at the HLS. “Many people feel the need to check them regularly.”

Schlotterbeck and his team helped the Swiss companies to develop the analysis method and program the equipment. The biggest challenge for the researchers was the tiny amount of blood available for analysis. “Unlike with conventional blood samples we’re only working with a few microlitres,” says Schlotterbeck. “One microlitre is 0.001 millilitres and it is not easy to get a robust and valid analysis from this small quantity, even with modern systems.” Schlotterbeck and his team first investigated a solution using dried blood. Like with a blood glucose test, clients would need to prick their finger, collect a drop of blood on a card and send it back. However, this method was not as painless as they wanted.

Since the partner firm Baze initially focused on the American market, the opportunity arose for a different blood collection method: a US-approved device the size of a small computer mouse.
“The device uses microneedles to draw very a small amount of blood from the upper arm totally painlessly. Customers send the device with the liquid blood back to Baze’s US site, where samples are preserved for transport then sent to Switzerland,” says the researcher. Swiss Analysis uses three analytical methods developed by Schlotterbeck’s team to determine the 20 nutrients.

“It was vital to find out which substances had the physicochemical properties to be successfully analysed in combination,” recalls the researcher. The main goal was cost efficiency; methods should be not only robust and valid but also fast. “Speed is key in analytical chemistry,” stresses Schlotterbeck. The more you can combine, the shorter the overall analysis time. This is important financially too, because determining nutrients individually as before was too expensive to be realistic for regular private healthcare use.

The complete analysis of eight vitamins, six trace elements, four amino acids and two omega fatty acids now takes less than a day. The evaluation of the results is then sent to the client via an app, co-developed by the FHNW Institute for Information Systems, along with advice on suitable dietary supplements.

Although this service is not yet available in Switzerland, the Innosuisse-supported project has already had a positive effect on the Swiss economy. In order to meet consumers’ needs, both firms involved in the project have not only invested in technical infrastructure but have also created jobs. The methods developed and tested at the HLS were transferred to Baze and Swiss Analysis. The HLS researchers are now working with another Swiss firm to develop a new method – to analyse proteins.


Methods

  • Individualised assessment of micronutrient status
  • Fitness and nutrition markers in blood samples
  • Minimally invasive blood analysis with micro-quantity samples
  • Multiple Reaction Monitoring (MRM) methods

Infrastructure

  • High-performance liquid chroma- tography coupled with triple quadrupole mass spectrometer (LC-MS/MS multiplex)
  • Gas chromatography with single quadrupole mass spectrometer (GC-MS)
  • Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS)

Support

  • Innosuisse
  • Collaboration Baze Labs AG
  • Swiss Analysis AG
  • Biognosys AG

FHNW School of Life Sciences

FHNW University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland School of Life Sciences Hofackerstrasse 30 CH - 4132 Muttenz
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