Researchers from Rutgers have developed an automated blood drawing and testing device that promises quick results. Speeding up blood testing could potentially improve hospital workflow and allow practitioners to spend more time treating patients.

The research team published a description of their fully automated device online in the journal TECHNOLOGY.

"This device represents the holy grail in blood testing technology," said Martin L. Yarmush, senior author of the study, in a press release. "Integrating miniaturized robotic and microfluidic (lab-on-a-chip) systems, this technology combines the breadth and accuracy of traditional blood drawing and laboratory testing with the speed and convenience of point-of-care testing."

As the world’s most commonly performed clinical procedure, diagnostic blood testing influences most medical decisions. The success rate of manual blood draws depends largely on the skills of the phlebotomist or clinician and on patient physiology.

Hemolysis, inappropriate transport, misidentification, improper tube, insufficient specimen volume and clotted samples with fibrin can lead to specimen rejection and lost time. Furthermore, most test results come from centralized labs that handle great quantities of samples and use labor-intensive analytical methods that can reduce success rates.

The Rutgers Robot for Blood Analysis

To improve success rates, the biomedical engineering research team developed an automated device that combines an image-guided robot that draws blood, a sample-handling module and a centrifuge-based blood analyzer.

The Rutgers device has three separate parts. The first component is a "venipuncture robot" that uses ultrasound imaging and near-infrared (NIR) technology to locate the patient’s blood vessels. It then uses image analysis to reconstruct the vessels in 3-D before inserting the needle into the center of a viable vein.

The next part of the devices is the "sample handling module" that extracts the blood and pumps it to the "centrifuge-based blood analyzer," which is the last segment of the system. The analyzer contains an acrylic microfluidic chip that holds the sample, a centrifuge and an optical microscope system that determines white blood cell (WBC) count.

The researchers first demonstrated a WBC assay on the analyzer with a blood-like fluid containing fluorescent microbeads, where the area of packed bead layer correlates with the bead concentration.

The research team then performed a number of experiments to test the pumping efficiency of the sample-handling component. The scientists conducted studies on the integrated device from draw to analysis using arms with plastic tubes, known as blood vessel phantoms. The studies on the integrated device intended to evaluate the repeatability and accuracy of the resulting WBC assay.

If approved for use and integrated into clinical use, the device could provide rapid blood test results in emergency departments, ambulances, clinics and at the bedside.

"When designing the system, our focus was on creating a modular and expandable device,” said Max Balter, the leader of the study. “With our relatively simple chip design and analysis techniques, the device can be extended to incorporate a broader panel of tests in the future."

But will people trust the technology? There does seem to be greater skepticism in diagnostics since the Theranos scandal, for example.

Patients may fear the potential for mechanical failure in a device poised with a needle over their arms. Robots also lack the human touch that helps many patients relax through blood draws.

Will the promise of fast, accurate results and improved success rates of phlebotomy sticks be enough to entice people to let a robot draw their blood?