The Moore’s Law that has computer processing power doubling every two years may have its equivalent in biology, where microfluidics technology is taking the smaller-faster-cheaper quest to new levels.
The Morgridge Institute Medical Engineering team, responding to increased UW-Madison demand for microfluidics resources, has launched a new microfluidics foundry to build customized tools that bring biology down to the smallest possible scale. The Advanced Fabrication Laboratory has a suite of new machines that can mold, emboss and etch polymer micro-channels and create the precise surface properties required in microfluidics devices.
“Biology and chemistry is getting microscopic, and many of the big instruments of science are getting smaller,” says Rock Mackie, director of medical engineering. The primary advantages of microfluidics are the ability to create much more precise experiments, more closely mimic real biological processes, and provide “lab on a chip” portability for field research, Mackie says.
Microfluidic systems can control flows down to a single cell at a time, and can be used to examine behavior between cells or processes with the cell itself. They have emerging applications in areas such as drug screening and measuring toxicity.
The idea for a Morgridge microfluidics effort originated with Dave Beebe, a UW-Madison professor of biomedical engineering and national leader in microfluidics technology, with more than 30 patents related to the field. For years, Beebe has been fielding requests from campus researchers for microfluidics support, and saw first-hand the need for a campus-level resource.
Adding to the challenge, few microfluidics resources exist in the Midwest, and researchers needed to order materials from a dwindling number of labs on the east and west coasts.
“Biology and chemistry is getting microscopic, and many of the big instruments of science are getting smaller.”
Rock Mackie, Medical Engineering Director
“We’re providing the tools that will enable people to be more creative in this field,” says Fab Lab Manager George Petry. “Actually having a resource like this in-house allows people to try different approaches and play around, rather than just mailing off an order for a product.”
The resource has already been beneficial to fellow Morgridge postdoctoral research associate Vernella Vickerman Kelley, who is using microfluidics in her microphysiological tissue models. Microfluidic approaches are especially valuable in capturing cell-to-cell communication in a way that can’t be done with traditional macroscale cell cultures, which can be more like “putting a drop of water in the sea.”
“Cells communicate in different fashions — for example, through molecules that go out and bind with neighboring cells,” she says. “Some molecules are very short-lived and don’t work over a long range. With microfluidics, we can preserve these short-range messages.”
The group’s first step has been duplicating a select number of standard microfluidic devices that are most useful to scientists, following Beebe’s current protocols. The next step will be to help scientists who have unique applications.
“We see this being similar to our 3D printing technology,” says Rob Swader, a mechanical engineer for the Fab Lab. “We get the technology with set applications in mind, but as people come through the door with original ideas, we will adapt.”
To inquire about the microfluidics resource, contact Swader at 608-316-4706, firstname.lastname@example.org.