Blood Draws: Infrared Technology, Chemistry, and Moore’s Law

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Present techniques of venipuncture are both art and science. Image by U.S. Air Force

Present techniques for drawing blood (venipuncture) are both art and science.
Image by U.S. Air Force

Most of us have seen (or been) the person getting pricked and prodded by lab technicians looking for a suitable vein for blood work. No one likes getting blood drawn – or watching someone miss the vein, especially on a child. To those hoping for a suitable way to have their blood sampled, a possible solution may be coming soon.

The technological advance itself is not all that new. In fact, scientists and chemists have used infrared light in the lab for at least 60-years. However, using infrared light to discern veins from other tissue is a novel approach.

This technique allows for easier access to the flesh – and inflicts less pain during the blood draw process. That’s something nurses, patients, and doctors can support.

Imaging Veins Without Prodding

When focused ambient light is shone upon an arm or hand, it is hard to notice the differences between the veins and flesh. Ambient light is poorly absorbed past the skin’s top layer – it just lights up the skin. However when you shine infrared light upon the skin, the light is absorbed deeper and illuminates the first 3-to-4 millimeters of flesh.

More to the point, our flesh and blood absorbs infrared light far more. Once under the skin, the infrared light strongly contrasts our veins from the surrounding flesh.

[A thought experiment at this juncture proves the point, you might try putting your hand carefully in front of two light sources-an incandescent light bulb and a compact florescent light bulb. The upper layer of flesh would be discernible in front of the incandescent source, only. Incandescent lights burn hot while compact florescent lights are considerably cooler.] `

The Utility of Infrared Spectroscopy

Infrared Spectra Alcohols

Infrared spectra of molecules discern and describe how molecules bond and to respond to heat. Copyright image by John A. Jaksich, all rights reserved.

The technology utilizes infrared radiation to distinguish red blood cells from neighboring tissue. Because the device utilizes heat for discernment, the instrument leaves the surrounding and target tissue unharmed. Thus, the technique revolutionizes blood and tissue sampling protocols, and gives peace of mind to doctor and patient.

In the lab, light spectroscopy allows chemists and scientists to identify molecules unambiguously. However, applying this technology to practical uses is difficult to imagine, for the lay public.

From conception to end use, infrared technology (or the use of light) seems fraught with triviality. Match spectral bands (or peaks) with computed predictions, and molecular identification is complete.

However, organic chemistry is replete with analyses utilizing infrared technology; it allows synthetic organic chemists to quickly discern the presence of ethanol from methanol (in the illustration).  Thus, no two molecules have an identical infrared spectrum.

Infrared Analysis of Veins?

The laboratory instrumentation for infrared analyses is costly-it can run up to 5 figures and occasionally greater. Outfitting each phlebotomist’s station with a laboratory instrument of such cost would not be economical. However, when breaking down the instrumentation that performs imaging, you’ll notice three separate components: an infrared source, CCD, and the means to project the image.

Here comes the “aha!”- you can perform all of these with a device that is as complicated as a cell phone. The pricey instrument becomes as costly as a good computer tablet.

In a 2014 journal article, a group of European workers (led by Simon Juric at the Advanced ICT Research Group of Farmadent Pharmacia in Slovenia) utilized a common cell phone platform with firmware/software modifications as the preferred instrument. The reported results were promising, and further results await publication.

Although versions similar to the European instrument are ‘in trial use’ by the Australian Red Cross, it would seem that complications could ensue. Operator error, certain skin colors are harder to image, and the ‘standardization procedures needed for analytical instrumentation’ may be too difficult for practical use. However, Moore’s law coupled with an everyday license may boost the endeavor.

Moore’s Law, the Utility of the GNU General Public License, and IR Analysis

Moore’s law is an approximate time measure for how long it would be take for computation power to double in capacity and speed. The GNU General Public License is well known among computing circles-chemists included. It allows for the average Joe, Jane, or scientist to utilize computational software for any means they see fit-with the proviso for citing its source.

Thus, As Juric and co-workers report, a low-cost device is made into a commodity through the implementation of ‘open source software.’ As we realize that expensive scientific instrumentation can be made into commodities, perhaps the development will allow for a new entrepreneurial spirit to arise. And so, lessen needless suffering.

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