A new credit-card sized device could provide a way to test people for heart disease using a pinprick of blood. Developed by a team of researchers from Harvard and Northeastern universities in Boston the device can measure and collect a type of cells, called endothelial progenitor cells, using just 200 microliters of blood.

The depletion or ageing of these bone-marrow derived endothelial progenitor cells is a risk factor for vascular disease, as they can enter the bloodstream and go to areas of blood vessel injury to help repair damage. This is because they have the ability to become the cells that make up the lining of the blood vessels (endothelial cells). So the device, which enables the easy collection of these cells, could also bring efforts to create tissue in the laboratory for vascular bypass surgeries another step closer to reality.

The device works much more easily than current techniques for collecting endothelial progenitor cells. To collect the cells, it works similar to Velcro or a magnet. Specifically, the inside is coated with antibodies that only bind to endothelial progenitor cells. Blood flows through the device through a funnel-like opening (except the blood enters through the narrow end and exits through the wide end), passes over the antibodies, and endothelial progenitor cells are "picked up" in the process.

Aside from providing a new tool to assess cardiovascular health that cuts the amount of blood needed down to a pin prick, its compact size could also be useful in developing countries where access to medical laboratories is difficult. It also brings us closer to a future where new blood vessels, veins and arteries for transplants no longer need to be grafted from patient's bodies, significantly reducing the amount of pain and recovery times for bypass surgeries.

The team’s research is detailed in the study, “Development of microfluidics as endothelial progenitor cell capture technology for cardiovascular tissue engineering and diagnostic medicine”, which appears in the FASEB Journal.