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Drawing blood with a tap, not a sting

Cambridge firm’s device uses tiny needles, vacuum for painless diagnostic tests

Touch Activated Phlebotomy uses 16 tiny needles to draw blood, largely mitigating the pain of traditional blood-drawing techniques. Touch Activated Phlebotomy uses 16 tiny needles to draw blood, largely mitigating the pain of traditional blood-drawing techniques. (Seventh Sense Biosystems)
By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2012
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Pop culture has developed an appetite for blood, but the average American still cowers at the sight of a needle.

What if giving blood was as easy and painless as a tap on the arm? Engineers at Seventh Sense Biosystems in Cambridge have been working for two years to make that so. And they are getting close.

In a low-slung building in Kendall Square, a blood-collection device called TAP, for Touch Activated Phlebotomy, is being perfected by inventors who hope it will revolutionize the diagnostics industry. The company says it will be available for widespread use in two to three years.

No bigger than a Mallomars cookie, the plastic device adheres to skin and, with the tap of a button, 16 tiny needles penetrate the surface to collect blood.

A select group of physicians and lab directors are familiar with the concept, and a prototype will be used on consumers this month, said Stephanie Wells, head of marketing for Seventh Sense. The device will be tested in hospitals in March.

It is designed to be painless and compact. A push of the button activates a vacuum that carries the blood through a tiny channel into a reservoir. Two minutes later, the TAP is removed, leaving a mosquito-bite-size impression on the skin.

The blood can be tested at a patient’s bedside, or the device can be sent to a lab for scrutiny. The company is working on two models: one that will draw 25 to 30 microliters of blood and a second to collect 100 microliters or more.

TAP collects more blood than a finger stick and less than a typical needle - but enough to perform a range of diagnostic tests, from routine kidney functionto infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. “It really fills a niche,’’ Wells said.

Seventh Sense recently received a $3.28 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Grand Challenges Canada for the invention’s potential to help stem the spread of disease in developing countries.

The TAP device “can help health workers around the world save countless lives,’’ said Chris Wilson, director of global health discovery at the Gates Foundation. “Our hope is that these bold ideas lead to affordable, easy-to-use tools that can rapidly diagnose diseases.’’

Because of its portability, the tool could be used in remote areas. Using it is quicker and less expensive than sending a doctor into the field, and because blood is contained, the TAP is safe for HIV testing, Wells said.

Seventh Sense’s president, Doug Levinson, said the technology could also keep diseases such as diabetes under control; future versions of the device, for example, may be able to inject insulin.

“It’s a responsible way to monitor our health,’’ said Levinson, who likens the role of the device to a “check engine light’’ in an automobile.

The invention has garnered interest from the Central Intelligence Agency, too. The CIA’s not-for-profit investment arm, called In-Q-Tel, gave Seventh Sense an undisclosed amount of money to get started in 2008. In-Q-Tel would not say how the agency might use the device, and Levinson offered no comment.

A trio of venture capital firms also helped the start-up get off the ground with $4.5 million in initial funding.

Jay Hayek, chairman of pathology services at New England Baptist Hospital, is intrigued. Although he has not tested it, he says the TAP could streamline disease detection.

“If I can save my patients the pain of a needle or stick and it gives us what we need, it has tremendous use,’’ Hayek said.

He sees the most potential with elderly and young patients, whose veins can be hard to find. He also applauds its possibilities for the blind, some of whom might have to take their own injections, such as for insulin.

“It could potentially be used all over the world, saving patients where there is no nurse,’’ he said.

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kmdpierce@gmail.com.

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