Researchers at the University of Michigan recently announced that they have developed a gravity-powered chip that can mimic a human heartbeat outside the body. This is important because, since the chip can imitate fundamental physical rhythms, it can possibly advance pharmaceutical testing and open new possibilities in cell culture.
The cells are able to perform in a more natural manner when they are exposed to pulsing rhythms such as those found inside the body, rather than if they’re just sitting in a stationary environment in the lab. New therapies can be tested on human cell samples injected into the device, since the chip mimics human body conditions. Researchers say that this creation will likely be used to test out new cardiovascular drugs and blood thinners. They are also able to run multiple pulse rates and pressures on a single chip, which means that they can do several tests at once. And, since the chips are used in the laboratory and not on humans, the researchers are free to start utilizing them right away.
This “heartbeat on a chip” is just one of many developments in “lab on a chip” technology that seeks to perform complex laboratory functions in a miniscule space. A team from the University of Toronto developed a tiny, simple test for antibiotic resistance. The chip enables researchers to get test results in just one hour, which in turn allows doctors to select the most appropriate antibiotic to treat an infection.
Since traditional lab tests usually need a two- or three-day turnaround period, advancements such as this chip prove beneficial when time is of the essence. Bacteria normally needs time to reproduce to detectable levels, but this chip concentrates bacteria in a tiny space (a volume of just two nanoliters) in order to increase the effective concentration of the starting sample. The bacteria multiplies and converts the resazurin molecule, but gets “stuck” in a nanoliter droplet and cannot diffuse away into the solution — therefore, the bacteria can accumulate more rapidly to detectable levels and treatment is quicker. Additionally, the chip saves space … current antibiotic resistance tests depend on fluorescence detection, which requires large (and pricey) fluorescence microscopes to view the results. Tiny chips such as this can exist in a smaller space, such as a regular doctor’s office.
Another tiny chip, developed by École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne in Switzerland, is just a centimeter long and can be placed under the skin to monitor glucose levels as well as body temperature and drug dosages. An induction coil collects power from a battery attached to the skin with a patch, and a corresponding Bluetooth device sends results straight to the patient’s cell phone. The device was originally used on lab mice so that wire trackers wouldn’t get in their way, but the researchers predict that such technology could be available for humans within the next five years.
Last fall, a UPenn engineer received over a million dollars for his research on “organs-on-chips” — tiny, 3D models of living human organs. Cell cultures or animal models are typically used to study diseases, but sometimes the models do not accurately simulate vital biological processes that mediate disease progression and exacerbation in humans. These microengineered chip models could provide a better imitation of the most significant features of living human organs.
Researcher Dan Huh hopes to develop microfabricated systems that mimic diseased human lungs, in order to help scientists gain a better understanding of chronic lung diseases such as asthma so that more effective therapeutics against them can be created.
An international team has developed a "Surface Plasmon Resonance" (SPR) sensor, which is an established optical technique for medical diagnosis with high sensitivity and specificity. This technology can potentially be used for lab-on-a-chip sensors – namely, a way to quickly detect cancer. Graphene amplifies the signal of the SPR sensor, which could enable easier detection of smaller amounts of biomarkers and could therefore offer an earlier diagnosis and prognosis of cancer and other diseases.
Lab on a chip technology, such as these examples, enables medical researchers to work in a smaller setting, can be more cost-effective than bulkier equipment, and provides faster results.