On the ISS the Canadian Space Agency are testing a new type of blood analyzer – one much smaller than we are used to on Earth. Called Microflow, the new analyser can offer real-time analysis of everything from infections, to stress, blood cells, cancer markers, and could even be used to test food-quality levels.
Microflow is a miniaturized version of a flow cytometer, that on Earth is a common research or clinical laboratory instrument used for a range of bioanalysis and clinical diagnoses. Microflow works by passing the sample it is given past a laser that can spot cells and biological molecules and then rapidly analyze them within 10 minutes to pass back results of the test to the user. The system has multiple lasers for detecting different physical and chemical properties in the cells all in real-time.
What makes Microflow so important is its size – the unit is less than 10 kg and the size of an average family kitchen toaster, unlike other flow cytometers on Earth. The advantages of the small mass are great for space, where launching larger mass is very expensive to start with and makes it ideal for use in the confines of a space station or on a mission to the Moon or even Mars; where storage space is limited.
Making the flow cytometer miniaturized, and making the system work in micro gravity, required the Qubec City-based National Optics Institute or INO to find a way to keep a fluid stream small and from becoming unfocused in a weightless environment. The team led by investigators Dr Ozzy Mermut from INO and Dr Luchino Cohen from the CSA built a device that suspends particles in just a tiny amount of liquid inside a small fibre-optic structure that is permanently focused. Once the particles are detected in this structure, the device transfers the collected data to a USB flash memory stick for analysis.
The Microflow unit will be tested by Chris Hadfield during his time aboard the ISS this year, the unit arrived on the Dragon CRS-2 cargo ship that arrived at ISS on March 3rd. If the tests and trials of Microflow are successful, Microflow will revolutionise how astronauts take blood samples on ISS for scientific study by allowing them to do the analysis themselves and not having to send back medical samples for ground labs to process.
Chris Hadfield with Microflow in its storage bag on the ISS
Image Credit: Chris Hadfield on Twitter/CSA and NASA