Just a pin-prick? Or a big deal?

This morning’s Observer column:

If you have ever been a hospital patient, then you will know the drill: before anything else happens, you have to have your “bloods done”. You roll up your sleeve, a phlebotomist searches your lower arm for a suitable vein, inserts a sterilised needle and extracts a blood sample that is then labelled and sent off to a lab for analysis.

Depending on your condition, this can happen a lot. If you are a cancer sufferer on chemotherapy, for example, you may come to think of your arms as pincushions and you sometimes have to watch in dismay as the phlebotomist hunts up and down for a suitable vein. Although the analysis of blood samples is now highly automated and efficient, at the sample-collection end it’s very time consuming and resource intensive.

The mind boggles at the amount the National Health Service must spend on it every year. And yet it is an absolutely central part of modern healthcare: blood tests are on the critical path of a very large number of diagnostic and treatment regimes.

Enter Theranos, a California startup that has (or claims to have) developed novel approaches to laboratory-based diagnostic blood tests using the science of microfluidics, which concerns the manipulation of tiny amounts of fluids (think ink-jet printers, for example)…

Read on.