I have been viewing a lot of TED talks recently because it’s fun to listen to people talk about and demonstrate their technology. One of the talks I saw recently was by Dr. Geraldine Hamilton, who is a senior scientist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Her talk revolved around personalized medicine: the future of developing drugs that are unique to each person. So, the first question that comes to mind is: how are they doing it? Well, the answer to that is Microfluidics.
Before diving into the complexities of how they are using microfluidics at the Wyss Institute to develop this amazing technology, let’s understand what Microfluidics is.
The complex definition of microfluidics is, “the science and technology of systems that process or manipulate small amounts of fluids, using channels with dimensions of tens to hundreds of micrometers,” according to the journal Nature. But in simpler terms, it is merely designing a device at a dimension scale found in the human body, such as the channels for blood flow through arteries and veins.
These devices are generally made from Polydimethylsiloxnae (PDMS), a material that can be molded into any shape. The device can have several chambers where cells can be cultured or nutrients can be passed through. And, just to be absolutely to exact in replicating in-vivo (living) conditions, some of the microfluidic devices can also have a membrane that can separate the cell-culture chamber from the chamber where nutrients are flowing. Nutrients required by the cells can pass through the membrane, which can be made from polycarbonate. Yes, the same stuff that is used in making iPhone 5C. Pretty amazing, right?!
The group at the Wyss Institute has developed several of these microfluidic chip designs, like the one pictured above, that can mimic the environment in different organs by using different cells.
How are they planning to use it to develop personalized therapies? Well, cells can be harvested from the patient, cultured in these devices, and the effect of drugs can be studied outside the body before doing clinical trials on patients and studying the process inside. An added benefit is, because they have developed these “organ-on-chip” models for the key organs in the body, all of them can be used together in one single system to form a “body-on-chip” system.
The potential of this technology is limitless. Imagine using such a “body-on-chip” system to test therapies and conduct clinical trials instead of using animal models. The response will be similar to what we are expecting to see in the human body.
Having worked with similar microfluidic devices during my graduate research, I can attest to the fact that they are pretty amazing to work with.
Sophisticated microfluidic systems that can mimic our body in a space less than that occupied by an iPod Nano are the future of personalized medicine.