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The Future of PCR

After 30 years, what’s next for PCR?

In the 80s, saying you were doing “PCR” was enough for everybody to know what kind of experiment you were performing. Today, the “PCR family” has gained so many new members that it can be confusing to decipher which type of PCR you’re using.

Developed in 1983 by Kary Mullis, polymerase chain reaction, or PCR for short, began as a way to copy specific DNA fragments using an amplification enzyme and specific primers. Very quickly this technique achieved world domination and its use became routine to in every lab to clone genes, diagnose diseases or identify genetic fingerprints.

In the fast-changing world of today, it’s hard to imagine how a simple technique not only managed to stay popular for over 30 years, but its use is still increasing. Not surprisingly then that PCR is referred to by many as the “gold standard” in the lab.

One of the ways PCR has managed to maintain its “throne” has been through many technological advances – such as speciality enzymes and digital PCR – developed over the years to solve specific problems associated with the technique or to improve its performance. And, undoubtedly, this is the best way to move forward.

The need for speed

Nowadays, the main improvement researchers are looking for is speed. PCR can be used in a multitude of diagnostic procedures, but currently patients need to wait days or even weeks for the results. Improvements have increased the speed of standard bench top thermal cyclers, but the current system is still far too slow to be of any practical use in a clinical setting. However, as technology moves forward with more automated systems developed to deliver in real time, it’s anticipated that waiting times will drop dramatically.

Continuous flow PCR

One of the most interesting and innovative ways to increase speed is through continuous flow PCR. These systems cleverly rely on different heating zones with the PCR mixture passing along microfluidic channels. This approach can significantly reduce the time needed for the reaction, as surface area is increased and the solution can reach thermal equilibrium in a matter of seconds.

One of the challenges still to overcome, however, is potential degradation of polymerase around the walls of the microfluidic channels. Research teams worldwide are working on new materials with increased hydrophobicity, as well as new heating and cooling systems, to avoid this problem and increase the system’s efficiency.

Fast PCR could save lives

These fast PCR systems in the hands of clinicians and health care workers could literally save lives, as part of a standard diagnostic test done in just a few minutes. In addition, PCR tests run in a simple low power handheld device would significantly reduce costs and simplify the procedure. It’s easy to see potential applications of such systems in areas with poor resources and medical facilities. Lack of electricity, clean water or transportation would not be limiting factors to use this all-in-one technique, with sample preparation, amplification and interpretation of the results done in the same device. This is the future of PCR.

4 Comments

  1. Neil on February 26, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Interesting article. Just thought I would point out the capabilities of the platform we have produced. We can run 40 cycle PCR’s in 10 minutes due to our novel heating and cooling technology. We have been generating a lot of interest in the potential for this technology. For more information please visit:
    http://www.xxpresspcr.com

  2. Alex Reis on February 18, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Dear vincr

    The idea is to improve speed to the point that is can be done in a few minutes during consultation with the doctor. Then, there would be no need to wait. I agree that PCR only takes a few hours to do, but samples needs to be sent away to the lab and wait for the results. In countries with poor medical resources, this system doesn’t work. But if there were a system by which doctors could
    easily and quickly get a result, it could significantly improve medical care. The pursuit for fast PCR is a way to improve analysis, handling and delivery of results.

    • JackBean on April 22, 2014 at 2:10 pm

      @alex-reis
      if they have to send samples elsewhere because they cannot do simple PCR, they won’t be able to do such state-of-art PCR by themselves.

  3. vincr on February 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    I understand the need for speed, especially in diagnostics. But seriously, running a PCR never takes more than half a day, including doing the mix and running the gel afterwards. So I’m not sure that the fact that people have to wait for weeks to have their results can be significantly improved by making the reaction faster. Wouldn’t it be wiser to improve the analysis/handling/delivery of the results instead?

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