Could Lab-on-a-Chip Devices Developed by BYU Help Save Lives?


Using 3D printers, BYU researchers can create microfluidic devices with components smaller than ever before. An engineering professor says development is changing the way medical professionals perform diagnostics and potentially save lives. (BYU)

PROVO – An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Brigham Young University, led by BYU engineering professor Greg Nordin, developed a new 3D printing technique to create the smallest high-resolution lab-on-a-chip microfluidic devices ever created .

Lab-on-a-chip devices are miniaturized devices that can perform analyzes typically performed in the lab, such as biomedical diagnostics or DNA analysis. Basically, the concept is that scientists take a biomedical lab and the diagnostic equipment in it and shrink it down into a tiny chip that can process and measure like a lab.

The researchers detailed the process in a new article published in Nature Communications.

This technology has been in development since the late 1980s and has improved the cost-effectiveness, speed, sensitivity and consistency of biochemical detection and biomedical diagnostics. Researchers say the device can also reduce human error with automated technology, allow more controlled testing and require minimal liquid samples.

The developers used microfluidic technology to create microscopic channels, pumps, and valves that allow testing and reactions on picometers of liquid, such as a tiny portion of a single drop of blood.

When it comes to technology over the past two decades, one of the biggest challenges with lab-on-a-chip devices is that they are typically manufactured in clean rooms, a lab free of dust and other contaminants. This process can take up to three to four days, which means production and market distribution becomes expensive, slow and difficult.

BYU engineering professor Greg Nordin and a team of students and faculty have found a way to 3D print microfluidic devices that are smaller than ever, but fully functional.
BYU engineering professor Greg Nordin and a team of students and faculty have found a way to 3D print microfluidic devices that are smaller than ever, but fully functional. (Photo: BYU)

Commercial 3D printers are not advanced enough to manufacture the microchannels and tiny chip technology. For this reason, Nordin and a team of researchers claim to have built their own 3D printers for around $ 100,000 each, capable of making the smallest lab-on-a-chip devices to date from a type of plastic created by liquid. photo-polymerized. transformed into high-resolution solid material layer by layer in five to seven minutes without the multi-million dollar expense of installing and using a cleanroom.

These printers require only nominal maintenance and can create valves as small as 15 microns.

“This is where the real innovation is,” Nordin said, adding that because prototypes of these devices are developed so quickly, they can take “a quick and frequent approach to iterating a successful device,” while in a clean room each prototype takes so long to develop that it becomes “valuable”.

He and his team currently have three 3D printers of different generations and iterations and four new developments underway. They use this technique to create a whole host of tiny pumps and valves, reaction chambers and mixtures, all on a single chip.

The low development cost, after the initial cost of building the printer, would mean these devices could be manufactured at low cost, making them more accessible to underserved communities, he said. Their small size allows for easier handling and could be administered by a nurse, not to mention easy dispensing. It also makes it easier to develop different technologies and functions within the chip, as prototypes are cheaper and easier to build and each chip will be able to perform multiple tests and perform multiple functions.

BYU researchers can 3D print microfluidic devices with smaller components than ever before.
BYU researchers can 3D print microfluidic devices with smaller components than ever before. (Photo: BYU)

“This development is revolutionizing (the field) in the following sense: so far you don’t see a lot of commercial microfluidic devices. Thanks to 3D printing, we can create prototypes very quickly and the manufacturing path exactly the same. than the prototyping path Bottom line: The amount of friction is so reduced that it can really be revolutionary in device development, ”said Nordin.

He gave an example that he and one of his colleagues, William Pitt, a chemical engineering professor at BYU, are working to submit to the National Institute of Health. This is to dramatically speed up treatment for sepsis, an often fatal bacterial infection that is resistant to antibiotics. Regular biomedical testing can take days between blood tests to determine which antibiotics will work. Using a lab-on-a-chip device instead would reduce that time to about two hours.

“Death rates change completely if you can treat a person that quickly,” Nordin said.

He believes this new technique could completely change the way healthcare professionals perform diagnostics and potentially save lives. He also wants the Utahns to know that “this cutting edge work being done at Utah universities is really having a huge impact on the real world and that the education students get by getting involved is truly fantastic.”

Within its team, the faculty guide and direct research and development, but the students do most of the practical work. The first author featured on the article published in Nature Communication is a master’s student from Peru who came up with many innovative ideas, Nordin explained.

“Everyone had a role to play, and what is really good is that companies come out of that and provide employment opportunities for high tech jobs in Utah, which is always one. of our goals, ”he said.

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